Subsubsection: 13 November 2016 Up Subsection: HMS Raleigh

2 July 2017

After some shore leave and consideration from those in high places, Raleigh returns to 7029 and passes on to 5634, a G0 star.
A proximity alarm goes off immediately on emergence from jump; it’s a relatively weak radar return, and it was sitting pretty much on the jump point. It’s accelerating gently towards Raleigh, not emitting sensors. The captain orders a gentle retreat, accelerating at a slightly higher rate.
Raleigh jumps to two gravities of acceleration as the Action Stations alarm sounds; she’s taken a laser hit, not a hugely powerful one. The enemy is another cylinder, smaller than the others at about 30 metres, and it appears to have teeth. It doesn’t seem to be able to accelerate above about 0.1 gravity, and the ship’s main laser out-ranges its own attack, but it heads back for the jump point once the acceleration is clearly higher than it can manage.
The creature will duplicate a pattern of low-power laser pulses, but doesn’t seem to manage extending a numerical sequence. It’s not clear how intelligent it might be. But it must somehow be detecting the jump point… the creature has a very matte surface
As there’s now time to scan: there’s an array of planets, and an asteroid belt in the life zone.
Raleigh passes in to the asteroid belt, first throwing a planetary surface impactor to the creature; it lasers the thing ones, manoeuvres to catch it, and eats it, the probe reporting mechanical shearing followed by strong acids.
The ship passes close to a small rocky vacuum world; it doesn’t appear to have been nibbled. The asteroid belt has, and as at 7029 there are some rocks drifting on long trajectories between jump points. The belt is somewhat active with the asteroid-eating cylinders, both grasers and predators, not as dense as in 7029. Dr Ali does some models and reckons that this belt is slightly depleted of carbonaceous chondrites, but not vastly. The crew manages to get some good video of the predation process, though the predators generally seem to avoid each other.
Dr Ali requests the fabrication of some dissection equipment, and the captain agrees to catch one of the smaller creatures (about ten metres long) that’s already being attacked. A solid laser hit drives off the predator, though it hangs around nearby outside its weapon range; another, carefully set up by Dr Ali, finishes off the prey. The corpse is manoeuvred into the hangar and the scientists start excavating. It’s a mass-driver type; the brain is definitely distributed, and navigation is probably done with low-resolution but directional photoreceptors. There’s no obvious reproductive system. The “bones” are superconducting at a reasonably high temperature, though modern materials are better.
Once the dissection is finished, they throw out the remains; once Raleigh has backed off a bit, the predator moves in.
The next system along the line is Hipparcos 5073; there’s a slight blip in power on arrival. This system has an asteroid belt quite close to the star, and it’s sparkling; the light isn’t coherent, and matches the star’s. The first theory is light sails, though that doesn’t seem quite right. The pulsar clocks are where they should be.
Checking out the power plant and associated systems during the trip in towards the belt shows nothing obviously wrong. Many of the asteroids of the belt (perhaps one in ten, down to about 50m diameter) appear to have been cut and polished; some of them have experienced collisions since, so this probably happened some time ago. (And even if they all lined up on the ship at once, the extra starlight wouldn’t be dangerous.) Dr Allenby is all for recommending the system be interdicted, and the others agree.
The route back to Wolf 81 does pan out, without anything particularly remarkable in the final system.
Gresson and Dr Ali reckon that if they’d all started in the same place it was thousands or tens of thousands of years ago, nothing in astronomical terms. Ali considers how long it would take: with a carefully-designed laser it could be done in half an hour or so each, so with one ship this would take centuries.
A close-up inspection shows extreme flatness in the polished surfaces: industrial tools could do it, but not simple laser cutting. Some details looks show something like clamping marks, suggesting that something was at least grappled near the cut face; and they were all done as single cuts, or finished off afterwards to such precision that this can’t be disproved. After some searching, the crew finds the two halves of what seems to have been a single rock; the clamp marks match up, suggesting that it was clamped before it was cut.
There’s no sign of habitation, present or historical, on any of the planets, and no obvious place to watch from. A greenhouse world slightly further in than the belt seems to have more craters than one might expect. Judging by the current level of volcanic activity, a lot of these craters happened at about the same sort of time, around 10,000 years ago.
It looks as if there may be a 3-jump route that leads forward to another British system, and Raleigh proceeds that way. Gresson deteremines that the fusion plant logs show a signal of high-G spike and damage alert, which caused the plant to shut down and restart; eventually Ali tracks down a bug in the stellar comparison routines that serve as emergency backup to the accelermeters, which is sending a high-G warning when the stars change during a jump… only when certain specific patterns are present.
In 4708, the inner gas giant has a ring system, which is normal; but there are concentrations, which is not, suggesting a breakup in the kiloyear timescale. There’s no synthetic radio traffic or laser light in-system, or any sign of current habitation. Further in, there’s a water-world about two AUs out.
The innermost surviving moon is about 10% ice, and has many craters on it, some of which are noticeably radioactive. The ring system isn’t, particularly; and it’s outside the gas giant’s Roche limit.
The craters contain some long-lived isotopes, possibly consistent with an old and large fission device; with a lot of assumptions the ranges for when these detonations happened, and when the moon broke up, overlap by 2,000 years or so. A planetary impactor starts analysing in more detail, and is quickly dissolved (from the bottom up) in a brew of various acids including mostly hydrofluoric. What it did send back suggests an explosion date of about eight or nine thousand years before the present day.
Soft-landing a simpler downward-pointing camera reveals nothing obvious during impact; after thirty seconds or so the legs start to dissolve where they’re in contact with the ground. It looks as if there’s a fast-growing mould spreading up them and dissolving as it goes.
Taking a main gun shot shows nothing unexpected just below the surface (and the usual iron-silicon-oxygen rock composition); another probe dropped in shows the mould coming out of the rock, not leaving a hole behind, and dissolving the probe.
Dropping a probe not into a crater (a few hundred miles away) shows no activity for six hours, then it’s overrun in a few seconds as before.
Looking at the ring system shows some metal. Looking more closely some of the fragments (tens of metres across and smaller) show definite signs of having been manufactured.
There’s some sign of historical microbe activity on the radioactive moon, but no indication of anything recent.