Subsection: HMS Raleigh Up Subsection: HMS Raleigh Subsubsection: 2 July 2017 

13 November 2016

Comerell (Hipparcos 7863), something of a jump point nexus, has several asteroid belts as well as a planet that could potentially support human life; there’s an anomaly, a cluster of débris some ten thousand miles out from the inner belt, which hasn’t yet smeared out along the belt. They seem to be objects up to about 300m long; larger ones tend to be cylindrical and dull, while smaller ones are closer to spherical and tend to be shinier. Given the amount of dispersion, Allenby reckons they might have all been at a single point between four and five years ago, and then gradually drifted apart.
With the big telescope, the larger objects can be seen to be 100-300m long, with 90%+ light absorption. Going to active spectrography shows organic/ceramic composites. Somewhat further out there’s an isolated patch of something flesible which occasionally flashes starlight.
The ship moves to look at that; it’s a flexible sheet, torn in several places but still in one piece, with no obvious sign of attachment points.
There’s no previous record of exploration of this system.
The larger objects in the débris field are all damaged in some way: punctures, cracks, and so on, with a skin stretched over curved structural members. Some of what can be seen inside matches what’s tumbling elsewhere in the field. There’s a cut end that looks more bitten than anything else; Ali forwards it to Allenby to see if she can reconstruct anything. She reckons it’s a combination of mechanical shearing, extreme heat, and possibly a chemical reaction too.
There are a total of 15 cylinders, eight of them in the 300m class, the other seven smaller. The four take a shuttle, then suit up. The best reconstruction on the biggest cylinder is “boiled in hot acid, then chewed apart”. It’s a fair mess inside; very little that looks as if it might be a passageway or a crew space, some minor sign of decompression damage, and absolutely nothing in the way of labels.
The skin has a fluid circulation system (presumably for temperature control) rather than electrical supply; Ali gets a sample of the fluid, which resembles dirty water. The insides of the cylinder resemble floppy bags of something skin-like; some contain gases, some fluids. Some of the free-floating ones have been chewed on and torn open. There are things that are clearly contractile and could be called “muscle”, and superconducting ceramic composite that could be called “bone”.
Looking at an end reveals a series of superconducting loops wrapped round a central void; sending in remote cameras suggests it might be something like a magnetic mass driver, and laser torches can get a sample loose. Others have similar mass drivers; some have solar boilers for steam rockets; one of them has a half-spun lightsail. Several of what are now being regarded as “the creatures” have lumps of asteroid inside them, partly dissolved by strong acid.
The team returns to the ship with many samples. The skin is photochemical, and it’s loading up the fluids with high-energy molecules when exposed to light; there’s ferociously good recycling, topped up by the occasional carbonaceous asteroid. Broadly there seem to be three types of creature: the lightsail, the solar-thermal, and the mass driver (which can either fire raw lumps of nickel-iron for high thrust, or an ion stream for higher efficiency). One of the solar-thermal ones appears to be hermaphroditic; the others are unclear.
Ali makes some guesses about metabolic rate, and thinks they probably couldn’t survive an interstellar trip. Dating the shells is tricky, but he thinks it’s broadly in the hundreds of years sort of range.
Looking at the developing smaller bodies, it seems that the different drive systems are not separate species. Ali reckons these are definitely biological bodges rather than engineering refinements.
The XNA sequences are very similar in terms of overlap percentage, but then so are humans and oak trees. There’s a careful watch being kept, but no sign of any live creatures.
The next system, Hipparcos 7029, is an unremarkable G0 star… but while Raleigh is crossing the system, there’s a gravitational anomaly at a jump point candidate (for Hipparcos 7929), and an asteroid appears that wasn’t there before; it’s in the several thousand ton sort of range. It’s on an interesting course, too – in several months it will drift through the jump point where Raleigh entered the system.
As Raleigh approaches, more information becomes available: the asteroid is mostly nickel-iron, and gives the impression of having been nibbled. There’s nothing obvious nearby, but a cylinder in the hundred-metre class briefly occults a star; it’s not on the same course, and not currently accelerating.
The asteroid has some slightly odd patterns in the bite marks; Gretton finds them not completely inconsistent with the electrical patterns needed for a jump. Looking at its orbit, while it’s passing from one jump point to another during this pass, it won’t do so again for quite a few years and probably hasn’t done so before for a similarly long time. It’s tumbling slowly, and there’s nothing that looks like a drive mechanism; and there’s no sign of creatures attached to it.
The detachment takes a shuttle to the asteroid, and plants sensors; by strange coincidence there just happen to be photosensitive minerals in the right place to generate electricity to feed into the grid. Either someone built this and tried to make it look coincidental, or something odder is going on.
There are other cylinders in the inner system, about ten overall, fairly widely spaced; they’re moving from one asteroid to the next, scooping up fragments. They’re not emitting any obvious electromagnetism. Tilting the ship to put reflected sunlight onto one of the creatures causes it to move, and hide behind an asteroid; a few days later it comes out again.
They don’t seem to react to the ship: one of the solar-thermal cylinders is happy to approach and scoop up bits of carbonaceous chondrite. It doesn’t react to running lights being flashed at it.
The ship finds all three of the propulsion types, but their reactions are similar. Getting up close doesn’t cause a reaction, though flashing bright lights causes it to swing away and deploy a mass driver, throwing lumps of iron vaguely towards Raleigh.
There’s a flash of a lightsail, on an intercept course for the asteroid at the jump point. Pulling up to that and flashing lights causes the sail to ripple, focusing weak sunlight onto Raleigh, though not enough to cause damage. Ultra-violet produces the same response; infra-red doesn’t.
On emerging into the next system, Hipparcos 7929, there’s a radio transmission, an emergency locator beacon… for HMS Raleigh, apparently, at one of the candidate jump points. There’s a fairly thoroughly wrecked ship there; no further detail is available at this distance.
Gretton checks pulsars: the date is as expected. Raleigh heads over to take a look. The target is indeed a survey ship of the right type, about two metres shorter than it should be: nothing’s obviously missing, but it’s compressed, and the drive section has exploded.
The wreck is mildly radioactive, standard radiation armour will take care of it. Sending across remote probes shows quite a few bodies (died of a very high acceleration, hundreds of gravities at least); their tags match the current crew, as do serial numbers off equipment, dates when people last entered things in their personal logs, etc. The last ship’s log entry is about twelve hours in the future, and reads that they’re about to transit this jump point (into the unexplored Hipparcos 7549).
An engineering analysis suggests that the antimatter store has mostly stood up to the shock, but one cell has let go. (Antimatter containment aboard the “current” Raleigh is well within spec.) One failure mode of jump points is interpenetration with an object coming the other way, but that causes microexplosions all through the ship and crew; that hasn’t happened here.
Nothing obviously anomalous has happened to the samples that have been gathered. The log shows that the other Raleigh made a slower pass through this system, didn’t find anything of particular interest, and proceeded through this jump point.
Probing the jump point with sensors reveals nothing out of the ordinary. The XO, Pritchard, suggests sending a flight of probes through the point; none of them comes back, but that’s not wildly unusual. (None of them comes back twelve hours earlier.)
Given this information, and the samples, Raleigh heads back to 7029; pulsars indicate no anomalies. The survey will be cut short, as this information has to be got back.
 Subsection: HMS Raleigh Up Subsection: HMS Raleigh Subsubsection: 2 July 2017