Deep in the vast reaches of space, a vessel set about a course, one that it had been taking for many months before, covering similar stretches of space in the same tedious manner. However, this day would not prove to have the uneventful conclusion of many before it.
This vessel named the TSC Tessla was on its 347th voyage from its homeworld of Earth, but only the third into this particular area of space. The TSC Tessla was a midsized deep space vessel, carrying a complement of seventy-eight restless crewmen. Although the exterior was refit to mask its age and update certain technologies, the dated interior clearly emphasized its lengthy service. In spite of its small size, it had an impressive array of weapons, rivaling armaments on larger battleships. It had a top speed of one-point-five light-years per hour (or one hundred fifty Kliks), although presently it cruised at sublight speeds.
The Tessla was one in a fleet of ships collectively known as the Planetary Alliance of Colonizing Terrans, or the Pact. The Pact originated on Earth as an alliance formed by civilian colonists in order to provide basic defense for themselves as they spread through the galaxy.
As time progressed, other, more helpless civilizations joined, pooling their resources in order to defend themselves against the onslaught of the many powerful races in existence. Races such as the K’Nough; a furry, arachnid-like race who had many times before attacked these worlds, including Earth colonies. The race that occupied the area of space the Tessla slowly cruised by.
Its captain was the ever-patient Captain Mendeleev Kershaw. Although he was one the most experienced officers in the Terran division of the Pact Aerospace Fleet, one who has even ventured into K’Nough space dozens of times before, he found himself still a little nervous. He paced the bridge, trying hard to maintain his calm composure to avoid alarming his new, inexperienced bridge crew. He occasionally stroked his thick, goldenrod beard whenever he felt impatient. He reviewed his instructions in his head, making sure he had followed them to the letter. Each time he did, he came to the same conclusion: there must have been some sort of delay in transmitting his next instructions.
As he sat down, this highly decorated officer felt he was on a mission of no apparent relevance. While he never involved himself with understanding the motives behind an assignment, he was aware of the Pact’s methods. He understood since the “reorganization,” when the Pact officially became a military entity suddenly charged with the defense of Earth, a double agenda became policy. Often his missions would have no obvious benefit to the Pact. Often this would entail upsetting another member race in the Pact but benefitting humanity.
When he briefly glanced down at the barrel-shaped cylinder beside his chair, he could only speculate how the Pact could benefit, how humanity could benefit, from his present assignment. He found himself anxious to know what he would be instructed to do next.
He again reminded himself that their distance from Earth weighed heavily in delaying an immediate response from any transmission. He considered again how the Pact Council members, many of whom he had served with on missions before, rarely responded immediately to any deep space message coming their way. He recounted how, in many instances, council members might not be available to respond, possibly being in a meeting or taking care of another matter. Despite this, Kershaw still felt a message should have reached them. He stroked his beard again.
He returned his hand to the armrest as his meditation on the situation didn’t quell the anxiety he felt welling up, more so on that trip than the two previous. He tapped lightly on the armrest of his chair, only then realizing he’d been staring blankly at the same bright point on the forward view screen for several minutes.
He closed his eyes and let out a sigh. “Time?” he muttered for what seemed like the four billionth time.
Losing his fight with fatigue, a helmsman who sat before Kershaw quickly looked up and about. “Sir?” he asked, baffled by the simple request.
Kershaw put his hand over his eyes and shook his head. “The time, Helmsman,” he said patiently, but his tone hinted at a shortage thereof.
The helmsman looked down at his console, still trying to shake off the effects of remaining dormant. He saw the information the captain sought. “Nineteen thirty hours, sir.” He frowned, looking at the console again.
“Then it’s official,” Kershaw announced as he stood from his chair and took a moment to stretch.
The helmsman looked back. “Sir?” he asked in the same bewildered tone.
Kershaw smiled. “How long has it been since Earth last signaled us?” he asked as he turned to the communications officer, Lt. Cassandra Neilson, to his left.
She looked up from her crossword puzzle, aware Kershaw was addressing her. She lifted the pad off her console. “Over forty-eight hours, sir,” she said as she returned to her crossword.
The other, more alert helmsman to the right of the first shook his head. “That’s exactly ten hours longer than the last time they sent us out here!”
Kershaw sat down and then stroked his beard. “Yes. I’m sure there’s a good reason, though.”
The drowsy helmsman looked back. “You’d think they’d tell us why we are out here, especially if they’re gonna keep sending us out here!” He slumped in his chair. “It’s like they’ve forgotten we’re out here!”
Kershaw looked down despairingly. “I wonder …” he muttered to himself.
Before he could finish his thought, a muted beep came from behind Kershaw. He looked back at his tactical officer, Lt. Susan Anderson, who looked intently at her console. He wrinkled his brow. “Problem, Sue?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so …” she said, her voice trailing off.
Kershaw stood again to walk around to her position. She looked up, briefly intimidated by his sudden presence. “It’s probably nothing,” Sue stated and then pointed at the center screen on her console.
Kershaw looked down, noting the triangular blob at the top of the screen. He looked at Sue. “Sensor anomaly?” he inquired.
Sue shook her head. “I don’t think so. There’s something out there moving, but I’m not sure exactly what.” She pressed a few nearby buttons, creating a small yellow point below the blob. “Here’s where we are in relation to it.” She looked up at the main forward view screen. “It should be in visual range now,” she noted, pointing up at the screen.
Kershaw looked up, fixating on a dark mass, darker still against the blackness of space itself. The nearby stars reflected clearly off its smooth surface. “Magnify the image by a factor of ten.” Kershaw moved closer. “What is that?”
The once drowsy helmsman, by then wide awake, looked upon his console. “Captain, I think it’s accelerating,” he said, trying to check his calculations with a small chart on his console. He looked back. “No, I’m certain it’s accelerating!”
Kershaw walked to the edge of the platform, just in front of the panoramic forward view screen. “How long has it been moving toward us, Tactical?” he inquired, having begun to stroke his beard again.
“I’m not sure,” Sue commented, entranced by the feedback her console was giving her. “It was only a moment ago I was tracking something on long range, but by the time I switched to short range to check for a sensor echo, I was picking up a different …” She stopped.
Kershaw turned to see the color had left her face. “Sue?” Kershaw remarked as he hoped for a response. For a moment, he didn’t receive one.
She finally looked up. “I-I can’t believe it!” She stammered. “It’s … it’s the same anomaly! It must have been going over twelve hundred Kliks!”
Kershaw was astonished. Since he knew no ship in the known universe was capable of more than two hundred Kliks, he found her conclusion unacceptable. “Tactical, are you certain of this?” Kershaw insisted, his voice clearly hinting at doubt.
“I’m positive,” she replied and then looked away from Kershaw back to her screen. Her voice rose slightly as she remarked, “Sir, it’s within firing range.”
Kershaw turned back to the screen, surprised to see the anomaly was now engulfing the entire view screen. “Ensign, could you turn off the magnification?” he calmly commented, trying not to hint of his trepidation.
The Ensign, who also stared at the view screen, quietly responded. “I already did, sir.”
Kershaw looked down for a moment to assess the peril they suddenly were in. Kershaw knew he could effectively deal with his own personal fear, not allowing it to affect his performance in such daunting situations.
Kershaw remembered much of his crew, however, was fresh, young cadets from the Pact Aerospace Academy, this being only their third excursion into deep space. With no practical experience with such an imposing unknown, he could only imagine the fear and anxiety that overwhelmed his bridge crew. Kershaw looked up.
“Condition yellow!” He barked as he quickly returned to his seat. The ensigns, somewhat surprised by their order, hesitated. Until they saw Kershaw glare as he sat down.
“Condition yellow!” one responded.
“Energy shields up, blast covers in place!” the other informed.
Kershaw looked about and saw his thoughts manifest regarding the crew. Each tried to focus on his or her assignment, but they grew more frustrated and anxious by the moment. Kershaw offered some reassurance. “Remember your training. It’ll help us get through this.” Kershaw leaned forward on his armrests, propping his head with his arms. “Then we can be bored to tears again.”
He looked about, seeing he was able to get at least a smile out of his crew. “Comm, any signals from the ship?” he asked, his glance to his left stopping at her. She looked down at her console, then looked up, and shook her head.
Kershaw leaned back in his chair. “All right, then, we’ll break the ice. Open the comlink.”
Kershaw awaited her response, but he could hear that she had some trouble with the controls. He glanced over to her reassuringly. She looked up, seeing Kershaw, a sigh of relief issued forth. “Online, sir,” she finally commented.
Kershaw fixed onto the view screen. “This is Captain Mendeleev Kershaw of the Terran System Craft Tessla, please respond.” Kershaw weighed his next words carefully to dwell on the code of ‘First Contact of Alien Species’ as outlined by the Pact Aerospace Council. He knew the code specifically dictated any vessel on a direct heading for them that didn’t respond with any form of accepted communication within fifteen seconds after an initial transmission was to be considered hostile. Kershaw scoffed to himself, imagining the many ways such a shortsighted rule could cause more problems than it may avoid.
However, he knew there was no choice in how the situation was to be handled, considering how textbook a scenario it was already proving to be. He broke the silence. “This is the Terran System Craft Tessla. Your failure to respond and movement to our position will be viewed as an act of aggression. Please respond or we will be forced to fire upon you.”
Kershaw signaled for the broadcast to end. He looked over to the helmsman. “What are they doing?” he asked.
The helmsman looked down. “They’ve … stopped, sir,” he remarked, unsure of what was happening.
Kershaw stroked his beard. “Ensign?” he remarked in expectation of a more detailed second response.
The ensign was still looking down. “Sir! Ships are coming out!” He quickly focused sensors on one. “They appear to be the size of a two-man shuttle, sir!”
Tactical interjected. “Captain, they’ve got weapons, and they’re arming them!” Kershaw glanced up, turning a stern piercing glare to the ship.
“Tactical, bring weapons online!” Kershaw hit a button beside the armrest, giving him access to the ship’s internal intercom. “All hands to battle stations!” he boomed over the intercom. He pressed another button, giving him a personal tactical view screen.
“Tactical offensives online, sir!” the tactical officer stated. “Secondary batteries fully charged, mains almost ready.”
“The shuttles are firing!” the helm cried just as the ship began to shake mildly.
“Open fire on the nearest ships!” Kershaw commanded. He looked down to his personal tactical screen to see how the small ships were faring.
In a matter of seconds, the dozens of little ships that buzzed about the Tessla quickly were reduced to a mere handful. Each of the ships only withstood one or two direct blasts from the secondary cannons before they were thoroughly obliterated. Seeing their numbers were dwindling, the small ships returned to their mothership.
Kershaw frowned. “Damage report?” he asked, disappointed by the brief, one-sided nature of the melee.
The helmsman looked over his console. He looked up as he shrugged his shoulders. “None, Captain. I don’t even think they penetrated the shields!”
Kershaw leaned back, stroking his beard. “Is that all they are capable of? I find it hard to believe that this was an offensive.”
The tactical officer jumped up. “Captain, look there!” she yelled as she pointed just above his line of sight.
Kershaw glanced up to see a dim, pulsing light near the top of the vessel before them. “Tactical?” he said, still trying to focus on the light.
“I’m on it!” she responded, having entered requests for additional information on the phenomenon. “I’m noting a large power buildup within the ship, and it’s already off the scales!”
“I don’t think we need to stay here any longer,” said the captain, as he realized the danger looming above them. “Helmsman, give me your fastest speed on your farthest heading from here!”
However, it was already too late. The dim light swelled into a large burst, leaping quickly at the Tessla. Immediately overwhelming their shields, the TSC Tessla imploded a few moments later.
A transmission finally came, but it didn’t reach the TSC Tessla. The Tessla was already laid waste by a silent invader, now moving away in the direction from which it had come.
In the midst of the Tessla’s debris, a small, barrel-shaped container was set adrift, patiently awaiting another vessel that would soon cross its path.