00:01:57 Sidereal Time
31, October 2163
UniCol Far-Search SETI Station 08 - Beyond the Heliosphere
It hung there, suspended in the void like a pebble of pumice in a still black pond, white and glowing - distant sunlight and yet more distant starlight illuminating its bleak metal exterior, featureless and smooth save for the odd contours of piping, support beams, and long rails extending into solar panels that ringed the central, cylindrical structure. The UniCol Expeditionary Corps built its installations in the good ole’ Earth fashion - simple, skeletal, and efficient. The only splashes of color so far out from the Unified Colonies was their own logo stamped onto the station’s hull, and the odd strobing guidelights of several long sensor splines that reached out into the yawning Black beyond the Sol System, grasping for data.
Within that floating, cylindrical hull, swaddled from the seething void and searing radiation of the deepest space, Lyssander Torg hummed tunelessly to himself, ups-and-downs of rhythm to keep the boredom at bay. He checked, rechecked, and verified readings on the SATscan monitors, checking everything from spectrographic readouts to lowband frequency sweeps. The station’s aging REGIS array told him that nothing was out there. Again. He crossed off another day on the calendar, scraping the dull nub of a pencil to close out another five-day ‘work week’ in scribbled tally marks. The pad upon which those tallies were scrawled had once been a calendar, some cheap bikini model edition from a gift shop on Star’s Edge he’d picked up before shipping out. Now the months and days were faded and yellow with age and starlight, and that’s to say nothing of the centerfolds who crowned each new month once upon a time. Poor Ms. October, he recalled from memory her ample breasts, wide hips, the slight dimple on one buttock, beauty mark on her chin, all wrapped up nicely in a two-piece bikini in front of the artificial pools on one of Luna’s vacation domes….maybe he’d buy a new calendar next time he rotated back to the Colonies.
He was two thousand, seven-hundred-and fifty-five days into his ten year contract, and the long dark was beginning to drain on him at last. As the only UniCol employee this far out, he’d figured the solitary mission would be a nice change of pace, but endless hours of boredom without so much as a blip on the REGIS were enough to drive any man up the wall.
He was considered a handsome man by few. Lyssander Torg was 38 years old, just over two meters tall, and rail-thin. His stringy hair, a platinum blonde beginning to bleach white from long years away from atmospheric sunlight, clung to his scalp, framing a gaunt face that, when illuminated by the internal lighting of his space helmet, resembled a skull. His watery, gaping eyes helped that comparison little, drinking in the darkness and appearing as black orbs set deep in their sockets during those scant trips into the Black - his cohorts back on Hygiea often commented that he looked on the verge of crying. His mother, once upon a time, had commented the same - but she had framed such a thing much more positively, as mothers do, assuring young Lyssander that if he were on the verge of tears, that was only due to him being in awe of the beauty of this universe.
It was indeed such awe that drove Lyssander Torg to the edge of the Heliosphere, for the universe was beautiful to him, and he developed a keen interest in astrological phenomena, SETI studies, and stellar cartography. Once he’d graduated from school and set out to find his place amongst the stars, he signed on with the Unified Colonies in search of life beyond the Sol System - and, despite his current state of absolute boredom, he still hoped to find it.
He finished scrawling his hashmark and capped it with a doodle - a cocoon, like that of an insect from old earth he’d read about as a kid. He’d drawn the same image, and hummed the same tune, for two-hundred-and-eleven days now. He admired it for a long moment, thinking back to the gardens on Hygiea, the grow-domes on Luna, the last time he’d seen green plants or living things, and smiled with a strange look in his eye, as if he could see beyond the walls of his current prison of employment, past the glass and steel and solar panels and sensor splines straight through the Black to Earth itself, and all the green that lingered there. He stared for what seemed like hours…
He blinked, suddenly frowning, the out-of-body experience fading. He’d never really harbored an interest in Earth, or its colonies…yet in the moment it was like a fixation, a small obsession that lingered for the longest of moments until his concentration broke. Lyssander took his thumb, smudged out the sketched cocoon, and resumed humming his tuneless melody. Behind him, the radiotelemetry readout began displaying something new: the c-res monitor aglow in a pallid green hue, a unique waveform rising and falling, rising and falling, tracing ups-and-downs of the rhythm that echoed Lyssander’s own…
21:07:33 Sidereal Time
15, April 2187
Deeps Region - Chiron Orbit
Executive-Captain Claire Umbridge stood silently in the wheelhouse of the CECv Surplus of Ire, gaze focused on the distant surface of Chiron below and its glimmering web of guidelights. Once, they had been resource routes: long ore-roads for bulk haulers and survey convoys to navigate by strung in between the few remaining, far-flung corporate domes. Now, they served as reminders of the centaur planet’s illustrious past before the CEC mined its vast mineral resources, cored it to build a massive gravity centrifuge, and turned to more profitable ventures. The Ire and her commanding officer represented those ventures, but at the moment, they lingered in orbit, listless as she, her captain, and her crew awaited the next assignment to be passed down through the circuit, lethal potential wasted as the ticker wound down, payday after payday, the slow crawl of bureaucracy grinding ever onward….and ExeCap Umbridge was growing impatient.
She was a slender woman in her early thirties, her frame long since withered by a lifetime in low gravity, naturally dark skin pallid from three decades spent under sunless skies. Her short-cropped, curly hair was bleached white by astral radiation and gave her the cast of an officer at least a decade senior. Only the lack of wrinkling or other blemishes told of a younger woman, save for a round, knotted scar on her right cheek, courtesy of a detente with a young NCO, a particularly waxy candle, and a bout of sadomasochistic foreplay she deeply regretted. Claire Umbridge had spent the night’s watch on the nearly vacant bridge, accompanied only by the Helmsman and an Entry Level crewman, both intently fixed on their own work and pointedly avoiding interacting with their CO. Claire was content to stand there unperturbed, mag-booted to the floor plating, a sealed mug of coffee floating in the null gravity off to her left, while her right hand was engaged idly fiddling with a heavy, round coin: a United States silver dollar, given to her by Director-Admiral Brannagh, her superior in the Chiron Expeditionary Corp’s 5th Audit Fleet, upon receiving her commission some eight years ago. The dollar held no value today, of course, long since supplanted by the SCD - Sol Colonial Dollar, or ‘Scud’ as scavengers and salvagewrights called it - ushered into economic dominance with no small help from the CEC itself. But its meaning was clear to her, always, and the silver dollar’s cold weight was a comfort she turned to when awaiting decisions from the higher-ups.
She lingered there for hours at a time, occasionally glancing up at the ticker - the scrolling readout of pixelated text that crowned every CEC ship’s central display in the wheelhouse, proudly proclaiming the corporation’s earnings for this sidereal quarter. These days, however, there was little to be proud of. For the third straight year, share price was down, crushed by high-yield stocks from the Albedo Colonies. GenLuxe was up 13%, Core-Ice Hydroneering nearly 30%, even the widespread Station Services & Utilities was up while Chiron Expeditionary Corps lost face. Their grip over the Deeps - that precious swathe of space between Jupiter and Pluto - was slipping.
The CECv Surplus of Ire was the Executive-Captain’s third posting since joining up with the Corps, and her first command since attaining her current rank. It was a venerable Polophylax-class Wardog, a veteran of the Sundiver War some eighty years prior to Umbridge’s captaincy, positively ancient by comparison to the woman who commanded it, but amongst the most deadly capital ships in the system.
The vessel’s high wheelhouse bridge overlooked its long forward section, sloping, cylindrical armor falling away to either side of her view, mimicking the curvature of the planetoid below. Two beltline rings encircled the ship’s girth to the fore, with a third aft, each brimming with guns. The networked turrets traced to and fro, chasing rocks, debris and errant satellites, ensuring each potential target was a non-threat before dropping lock and shifting to the next. They were old guns; Armstar Tac-390 ‘Smartgun’ artillery turrets that were prone to jamming and ate through ammunition at a startling rate, but firepower is power, nonetheless, and Clair Umbridge was keen on exploiting it. Neither she nor the Ire had gotten the opportunity to fire a shot in anger since she’d taken command two years prior, and she was growing weary of peace.
She had signed on with the CEC after several grueling rounds of interviews, a reference check, and a prolonged discussion about that gap year she took in university. The corporation had intrigued the young Naval Economics major with the promise of exploration and action (and a stellar benefits package, and a six-figure salary). The Chiron Expeditionary Corps was, afterall, the foremost space exploration and security force in the Deeps, and Claire Umbridge longed to exert her newfound station in search of profit and conflict.
But for this moment, and every moment over the last six weeks since returning from her last mission, Umbridge had been discontent to stand, watch, and wait, hovering idle in space, for the next.
She didn’t have to wait much longer.
The night watchman cleared his throat, derailing the ExeCap’s train of thought and breaking the eternally awkward silence. “Tightbeam from Chiron surface, ExeCap,” he chirped, keying his headset and adjusting the tuning dial at his station. Umbridge glanced over her shoulder at him. He was a younger man, fresh from the hiring pool, but his resume was solid enough - top marks in aggressive negotiations, MarCom strategies, and tactical analytics. Good looking too, the ExeCap mused to herself; he was five years her junior and well-built, though the crew cut and infantile cheeks still painted him as a youth in need of some weathering….not that Umbridge would make the mistake of sleeping with a coworker (or subordinate for that matter) again. “Put it through, EL,” she muttered, and the Entry Level nodded, “Probably just another holding order…”
“Can’t sleep, Umbridge?” Director-Admiral Clarence Brannagh’s gravelly voice piped in on the comm, sounding all the more grizzled as it cut through the harsh static.
Claire smiled up at the overhead speaker, though she knew the feed was audio-only. “Never, sir, you know me…” A harsh noise echoed through the speaker box, either a chuckle from her longtime CO or another burst of static, “Yes I do. Which is why I’ve got new orders for you.” “I’m all ears,” Claire perked up, standing at attention despite herself.
There was a long pause. Claire frowned, then looked over at the watchman, who simply returned the expression and shrugged, making idle adjustments to his console. “Sir?”
There was another pause. “Claire, we’re sending you to Star’s Edge at the head of Battlegroup Eileithyia.” Claire stiffened, staring up at the speakerbox, “Eighth fleet?” The Director-Admiral chuckled again, no doubt catching a hint of the excitement in her voice. “Part of it, anyway,” he confirmed, “you’ll be joining CV-002, CV-991, CM-010, support ships, and a small contingent of Belt Raiders we’ve got stationed near Pluto on maneuvers. Rendezvous with the battlegroup upon arrival at Pluto’s L1 point. Depart immediately, mission briefing will follow via tightbeam once you’re in transit - when you’re out of cryostasis, decode the info packet and carry out the orders encoded. Priority Mission Status Code: Wayfinder. And Umbridge? maintain maximum security on this, I want things locked down, not a word gets out - if those Albedans ‘round Enceladus get a word of this, we’ll have a scramble on our hands. Market is killing us lately, they’re outcompeting as it is with water rights and hydroponic crops….that killing might turn literal if it heats up, is that clear?” “Clear Sir, you can count on me,” she responded, saluting the speakerbox despite herself, “I know I can,” Brannagh responded confidently.
The line fell dead, and Claire Umbridge stood, silent and stunned, her mind racing with the possibilities the Director-Admiral had dropped in her lap. All of her aspirations and ambitions were seemingly granted all at once - Wayfinder meant more than just a new assignment, it was CEC briefing code for an extrasolar event! If she played her cards right, followed her orders, and stood out to her superiors, ExeCap Claire Umbridge would find herself at the forefront of interstellar telemetry mapping, lucrative exocomet mining contracts, or, she dared imagine...first contact.