”FTL, or Faster Than Light travel, is one of the most important technologies that a race can ever develop. Yet at the same time, it ends up being one of the easiest with almost every sufficiently advanced race eventually coming up with the same answer to the problem. Despite that, it’s one of the hardest things to develop on purpose. That’s because it requires the inventor to discard what they think they know of the universe. As a result, it’s usually not the scientists that finally come up with the correct answer. Instead, it’s one of the crazy inventors that like to think outside the box. Thus it’s no wonder that humans were extremely fast in developing the required technology. Everyone knows humans are all at least slightly crazy.”
-High Ambassador of the Mrrroww
“Captain on deck!” The marine at the door announced as Leon walked through the door. The marine must have been new.
“At ease.” Leon perfunctorily stated, even though none of the crew on the command deck, aside from the marine that is, had moved a muscle to react. They were all busy and knew better than that. “Lieutenant, what’s the situation?”
“Sir, the ‘Slingshot’ is working up to expectations and the core is charged to full capacity. We’re just waiting for you to put in the target coordinates and the friendly vessel to finish heating up their phase drive.” Lieutenant Finck stated while operating her console with lightning speed.
Her tone suggested that she was displeased with the captain of the friendly ship. Not entirely without cause since the ship really should have been ready by now. On the other hand, Leon should have been here fifteen minutes ago as well but he was given the target coordinates just a minute ago. Psicom didn’t like to give out more information than was necessary or any earlier than was necessary.
“Notify me as soon as the friendly ship is ready to make the jump.” Unfortunately, they couldn’t do anything until the ship had finished preparing their phase drives. Their facility could improve the speed at which the friendly ship traveled, but the ship still had to actually make the jump.
While waiting he walked towards one of the stations displaying the available information on the friendly ship. Their facility had been given rather strict instructions about not trying to actively scan the friendly ship unless absolutely necessary and the ship would have countermeasures for such scans anyway. All ships that belonged to clandestine operation groups did. That didn’t stop Leon’s crew from gathering basic data though, and they could at least see the ships silhouette.
“It’s a beaut of a ship isn’t it sir?” The ensign manning the station asked with clear enthusiasm.
“Are you implying the regular Tetrarchy ships aren’t aesthetically pleasing Ensign Kracht?” Leon decided to tease the young man a bit.
“N-no, sir!” The young man reacted just like he predicted. Young officers usually did. Leon liked to ease them into the tone he liked to enforce with his crew, casual and teasing. That, of course, assumed they were not in the middle of a shitstorm or meeting with other officers.
That brought some chuckles from the rest of the crew that were aware of the captain’s personality, and a frown from the marine at the door. What the marine was frowning at would remain a mystery, as he could be disapproving of the general levity, the young ensign’s slightly un-patriotic implication, or at least four other things. “The boy has a point though cap!” One of the other bridge crew interjected. “The ship is rather differently designed than the standard issue Tetrarchy combat or exploration vessels. It’s all angular and menacing.” That voice belonged to Lieutenant Dieudonné.
Lieutenant Finck interjected as well. The pair of lieutenants had served with Leon for years. “The standard Tetrarchy combat vessel is eminently functional and I’m sure the guys at engineering and maintenance appreciate the ease of maintenance and customization that the modular design brings, but there’s a reason they are called flying bricks by pretty much all the other races. Or at least their equivalent of a flying brick.”
Leon chortled. “Yes, I suppose the fact that none of the ops groups or Psicom use the standard design is rather telling. Have you noticed that none of the Tetrarchs have ever been filmed getting on one of the ‘Bricks’ after taking their position? Their ships tend to be a bit more imposing and dare I say grandiose.”
Their discussion would have likely veered off on that particular tangent for a lot longer but a sudden beep on Lieutenant Finck’s screen made everybody serious. They all knew what it meant. “Captain, the friendly ship is ready to perform the jump.”
“Alright everyone, you know the drill,” Leon announced. He pushed a button on his own station and semi-transparent tubes descended from the ceiling to surround the other stations and people. The tubes were made of rather thin material that allowed loud voices to travel through and you could see vague shapes on the other side but no details were visible. “Marine, I need you to step outside.” Leon continued glancing at the confused looking soldier near the door.
“Yes, sir!” The marine might not have understood what was going on, but that didn’t mean he was stupid. Something secret was about to happen, and he was not meant to know about it. Knowing too much about Psicom business could get you killed, so he almost dashed out of the room.
As soon as the door closed behind the marine, Leon started typing in a string of coordinates and instructions. The coordinates would be removed from the computer as soon as the jump was successfully initiated. The large installation known affectionately as the ‘Slingshot’ was one of a dozen of so-called Phase Jump Accelerators. Normally it might take months for even a state of the art ship like the one outside to travel the distance Leon anticipated they would have to travel, but the accelerator cut that time down to a couple of weeks. Give or take a few days in case they had to make course corrections due to obstructions in phase space. Jumps this long usually required some finagling even if everything went well.
As the PJA was one of the few large advantages humans had managed to get over the other races, its use was heavily regulated. All jumps were supposed to be strictly monitored to prevent leaks. Still, sometimes an operation that wasn’t supposed to be taking place needed a little speed boost, and that’s when they contacted the Slingshot. All the upper echelon members of the fleet and Psicom knew, that Leon was just the right person to contact, and approved of the practice. That’s why he became the captain of the Slingshot in the first place. He knew the importance of secrecy and bending the rules when the situation called for it.
As the coordinates had been set, a large energy field surrounded the friendly ship and space seemed to fold around the vessel, swallowing it whole. And then the ship was gone. As Leon stared at the coordinates for just a moment, he couldn’t help a small grimace. There was another reason he was the captain. Even the crew knew that something secret had happened and knew there would be no record of the jump. That wasn’t the point. They knew to keep their mouths shut, so that was not what made Leon special.
“This one will be difficult to forget.” He muttered. Leon was a psion. He was too weak to actually do anything special, he wasn’t even strong enough to rank as a P-1 which spared him from being taken into training by the Psicom, but being even a weak psion came with certain advantages. In Leon’s case, his memory was excellent. Perhaps more importantly, he could intentionally forget things in a way that even a skilled enemy telepath digging through his mind would be unable to recover the memories that he had purposefully erased. That’s why Leon was in charge of these kinds of missions. He would facilitate the jump, and then he would forget the destination. At least that’s what he had done so far. “Be safe Miyo.”
The tubes started ascending towards the ceiling and the rest of the crew came back to full view. “Show me the moment the ship jumped to phase space.” He commanded the nearby ensign.
“Missing your fiancée already?” Lieutenant Finck teased. Some secrets were impossible to keep even when it concerned clandestine operations and Leon wasn’t exactly shy about his fiancée. The others thought it was rather cute actually.
Leon didn’t dignify the dig with an answer. Mainly because the lieutenant was right. Mostly he was worried though. Miyo was going into dangerous territory and would be gone for a long time. Instead, Leon watched with fascination as the ship disappeared in a twist of space. Phase space was a fascinating concept. So many unanswered mysteries. New materials and new ways for the reality to work, and all you needed to do was twist the space just in the right way. A whole different reality at your fingertips.
Suddenly Leon frowned. He had noticed something, but he wasn’t quite sure what. It had been so fast that he had barely noticed anything. “Ensign, play the same clip frame by frame. Freeze on the last frame before the ship completes the jump.”
The young ensign complied and the picture moved slowly forward and stopped just as the surrounding space completed the twisting motion. And there it was; something that didn’t belong. “Lieutenant, do we have any way to contact the ship that just left?” His voice was trembling with anger and suppressed worry. He guessed the answer but still had hope.
“Negative, the ship was following full darkness protocol. I’m not sure where they jumped, but judging by our location, nowhere within range of phase buoys. Their telepaths will be under strict instructions to not contact anyone to avoid revealing their location or destination.” Lieutenant Finck replied. Just the question was enough to make her worry as well.
Despite all the advancements the various races had made, communicating across vast distances was still difficult. All of the most traveled phase lanes hubs had buoys placed in a string inside phase space that passed along information and messages every time a ship made use of that particular phase lane. That allowed for communications to be passed much quicker than ships carrying messages, but it still took some time. For emergencies and military use they had psions dedicated to long-distance telepathy, but those psions needed to be rather powerful, specialized, and they tired quickly. The ship that had just jumped likely had such a telepath on board, but that telepath would not be available for contact due to the secrecy and darkness protocol. Not that the ‘Slingshot’ had a telepath like that. Only major systems and bases could afford one.
“What’s wrong captain?” Lieutenant Dieudonné asked with worry.
Leon tapped at the screen at a particular spot. “What does that look like to you?”
The other officers moved closer to see what he was pointing and soon started cursing. “Sir, that looks like a Cybran sleeper shuttle attached to the hull of the friendly ship.”
“The shuttle likely followed the Slingshot as we moved here, and recognized the friendly ship as the main purpose of our new deployment. Like we joked earlier, the friendly ship didn’t really look like one of our standard exploration vessels. Add to that the fact that we were told not to actively scan the ship and the level of Cybran stealth technology and voilà. Not that our scan would’ve picked the shuttle up without the phase jump disrupting its systems.” Lieutenant Finck summarized the problem. “And now we have no way of warning the friendlies.”
“I need to make a call,” Leon said with a sigh. Thanks to their isolated position within the spiral arm of the galaxy, humans had been allowed to expand in relative peace for hundreds of years until running into other races. The uniting spirit of space exploration and colonization lasted quite a while but eventually, the spirit of unity ran out with the lack of external enemies. So the humans ended up doing what they did best, fighting other humans. Though it was arguable if the Cybrans and Illum were truly human anymore. Even the eventual contact with aliens had not been enough to put a stop to the struggle.
Miyo nervously fingered her necklace. Traveling through phase space always filled her with anxiety. Hundreds of years of utilizing the riches of the weird dimension and they had still only barely scratched the surface. Ships still had the nasty habit of sometimes going missing without any real reason. It was one thing for an exploration ship charting new phase lanes to go missing. Exploration was a dangerous occupation after all. The problem was that sometimes ships vanished while traveling through established phase lane hubs, seemingly without rhyme or reason. It was rare enough to not cause panic or further action, but still. And Miyo was acutely aware that their current jump was anything but safe.
That wasn’t the only reason she was nervous though. As she observed the people gathered in the large mess hall of the Vindicator, some of the people present were more dangerous to her than a thousand long-range phase jumps through uncharted territory. Half of the people gathered were perfectly safe in most ways. It wasn’t hard to figure out the general purpose of this mission when half of the people gathered were experts in xenoengineering, xenoarchaeology, and Progenitor artifacts. Although many of them had the power and clout to scuttle Miyo’s career, that didn’t really worry her. It was the other half that had her fingering her necklace in worry.
That other half of the gathered people were made up of experts in various fields of combat and strategy, and nearly all of them wore the insignia of someone trained by Psicom. Some of them were rather high ranking psions at that. Miyo furtively looked towards a corner of the large room where the otherwise crowded room had created a wide open space out of respect. At the center of that open space sat a young looking man with a small metallic halo hovering behind his head. The man was surrounded by a handful of high ranking psions, but the otherwise notable individuals were overshadowed by the man with the halo.
‘What’s a Deity doing here?’ Miyo thought to herself. ‘Are the leaders of this expedition expecting serious resistance? If so, why did they send one of the rare Deities along instead of sending a fleet of ships instead? What are they thinking?’
Miyo surreptitiously drifted further away from that group. The necklace she was fingering was the latest model mindshield gifted to her by her majesty herself. As Miyo herself wasn’t a psion, the mindshield would only slow down any telepath trying to enter her mind, but at least she would know what was happening and the shield would buy her some time. With the strength of her shield, an average psion would need months to get through the shield and she would be able to take measures. Even a high ranking psion would need almost an hour, allowing Miyo to at the very least kill herself to stop any information from getting out, but a Deity? He would be able to crack the shield like an egg. And then all hell would break loose.
Luckily for her, there was no reason for anyone to try and enter her mind, and she intended to keep things that way. Her attention was drawn towards the stage on the other side of the room as a group of officers neared the podium. Such extravagance on a military vessel where space was usually extremely precious. Likely this room had been designed just for these sorts of gatherings and presentations, especially judging by the large projector that whirred alive as the officers started to speak. Interestingly the officers had different uniforms on, signifying the fact that this was a joint operation of multiple branches of…well, whatever made up the gathering of people present.
“Ladies and gentlemen, some of you are already roughly aware of why we are here, but I think it’s important to get everyone on the same page. I would apologize for keeping you in the dark, but I think you’ll understand in a moment.” The man taking the lead seemed to be wearing the insignia of an admiral in the Tetrarchy space fleet, though Miyo had slight trouble making sure from this distance despite her excellent eyesight.
“The last few decades have seen interesting shifts in the strategic situation of our corner of the galaxy. Due to reasons we are still unsure of, certain worlds in our spiral arm of the galaxy and the outer rim of the core have drifted close enough for phase jumps between the rim and our galactic arm to have become feasible. The Illum were the first to discover this fact and have already established a beachhead in our territory, bringing the war close to our heartlands for the first time in sixty years. They were also smart enough to fortify that beachhead to prevent us from using the same path to strike them. As a result, we have been forced to use the Phase Jump Accelerators to seek out alternative safe paths towards the rim. I’m happy to report that we have succeeded, but one of the explorers found something that might turn out even more important.” The admiral continued.
He clicked a button and a grainy silhouette of a silver-colored ship appeared on the projector. Even this grainy picture was enough to get everyone murmuring. None of the gathered people had ever seen a ship like that in space, but almost half of them had an idea of its origin and the mere possibility made them almost giddy with anticipation. Miyo was giddy as well, but also felt something akin to religious fervor. ‘Is this it? Have we finally found one?’
The admiral continued. “I see some of you already realize the significance. The exploration ship was destroyed soon after sending this image due to succumbing to the damage sustained during the phase jump, and it took almost a year for the signal to reach friendly ears. We also can’t be sure we were the only ones to get the message. We all know both the Cybrans and the Illum have spies embedded in our midst, so we must prepare for a possible confrontation.” Miyo suppressed a gulp at the words.
“At the very least our enemies will hear about this soon, so we don’t have much time. The alien races would move entire fleets and destroy entire species at the mere possibility of finding what we are looking at. Yes, you are seeing correctly. We believe to have found an intact Progenitor ship. The first of its kind.” The admiral declared with solemnity.
Even those that had not recognized the ship realized the significance of the mission now. They also realized why one of the all-important Deities had been brought along. Many of the technologies the humans and the other races now used were based on things they had reverse engineered from Progenitor ruins. Species like the Mrrroww owed their lofty positions at the height of the galactic hierarchy to the technological advantage they had gained from studying several Progenitor ruins and artifacts. However, there had never been even a hint of news about a Progenitor ship being found intact. No one had any idea why that was the case, but the biggest vessels they had found were shuttles and some third generation ships built by the races that had been the servants of the Progenitors, and those ships had been built after their masters had mysteriously vanished.
No one could tell the condition the ship in the grainy picture was in, but even a derelict Progenitor warship could change everything. Would change everything.