A short story
The battlegroup traversed interstellar space at a steady clip of .1c when forward LADAR began receiving faint signal returns. Data encoded in width of the pulses indicated it was transmitted 30 years earlier. Parity bits validated they weren’t shadow mass flickers.
Based on doppler shift of the timestamps, this object was moving slowly in reference to the local cluster of stars. Barely any fraction of c. The battlegroup, currently in an acceleration pause, dispatched Frigate Mikr at a 90° angle of their travel to gain binocular reception.
Cameras and vectored photon detection winglets were trained on the area of space the signal return was coming from. This kind of investigation was rarely fruitful. Any rocky object this deep would rarely be detectable at all above cosmic background. It was too dark and too cold in this soup between ports.
Instead, there was a flare in the night. This object was dumping enormous energy in infrared, and no other range. If this was part of a brown dwarf, it was far too small, and the spectrograph didn’t match. Heat was generating inside. A reaction of some sort.
They refined focus.
No non-military travel permits had been issued on this flightpath by universal accord millennia earlier. And Kiy insurrectors were patient, but paddling for centuries barely faster than a chemical rocket wasn’t their style. They’d have used a larger IR diffuser.
Sufficient distance for depth signal transforms achieved, Admiral Arana looked at the briefing on her display from Mikr. Some sort of bulbous hull out there in the dark, outputting a dirty trail of matter doped by a second-stage fusion reaction. But what was shocking were the sails.
Thrusters this craft was using were capable of much higher speed, but operators of this aging design had to deal with enormous waste heat. Absent conduction/convection, there was only radiation. Surface area. You need sails to dump into the abyss.
Theirs were bright red. Madness.
The battlegroup’s signals had been detected for sure. They had gotten lazy. They didn’t follow procedure. They didn’t spend fuel repositioning onto unpredictable paths. They thought they were confirming another interstellar asteroid. Instead, it was peril blazed across their sensors. A pinprick of threat.
Staff worked at a frantic pace. The enemy they were coordinating against were 15 years ahead of them. It is a terrible thing, to know your death was determined so far in the past. Worst case, buckshot of particle lances could be headed their way, accelerated to all hit them all at the same time.
The battlegroup deflected on randomized vectors. Only one stayed true. The flagship.
Arana authorized unlocking their primary particle accelerator loop. Capacitors charged, the ship shuddered in blackness. Fifteen fusion reactors spittled to life, stabilizing output, charging supercooled magnetic coils. Into it they injected traces of iridium isotope.
At 95% the speed of light, Cruiser Avi unleashed their 15 year gift into the dark.
They charged and fired again.
Guessing at vectors.
Waiting for a spear to their heart fired 15 years ago.
80 years later, the battlegroup closed in on the ship.
There had been no threat fired at them. 63 years ago, Mikr detected a spark of supercharged debris exiting the ship. It had gradually cooled in the lonely dark of space ever since.
The larger battlegroup silently shot past, but Arana had transferred to a small ship, matching speed.
Closing in, Arana crewed the sensor suite of support frigate Wulf.
The lanced spacecraft had armor, but not military. A kilometer of some type of staggered liquid tanks preceded the ship, meant to intercept cosmic particles and shield from micrometeorites. Ancient technology.
Structurally, the ship was like nothing else Arana had ever seen or studied. It was... alien. Not a single part matched a clan foundry database. Radio frequency tags on parts returned unformatted data. It was as if from a mind disconnected from history or standard aesthetic.
Reclamation drones launched as they grew close, inspecting in more detail, and preparing to enter the unknown vessel. When hit there was evident wave buckling across the craft. But far more than anticipated, the crewed area must have been designed for considerable pressurization.
The small contingent of staff on Wulf watched screens as external labels of unknown language were captured and inventoried. No patterns matched, even as descendant. Autonomous drones began microdrilling on piping as remotely operated others entered through a broken airlock.
Arana’s drone was the first to enter what could be guessed as the crew area. But there was little evidence of residency. Was this a bulk transport? If so, why was so much of the ship able to be environmentally controlled?
They entered a series of large rooms with frosted glass containers attached to all sides.
Arana positioned her drone in front of a mechanical control panel that seemed associated with one container.
Transfixed by mystery, Arana ignored them. The container began to open.
“Admiral, the tanks are H20 and seemingly a buffer of reserve electrolocized oxygen.”
“Oxygen? The industrial agent?”
The container revealed a creature 6ft tall, pale skin, five limbs. Four were long -seemingly for locomotion and manipulation - and the fifth, a cluster of sensory organs. Especially grotesque were the lack of eyes. There were only two.
“Why would they need so much oxygen. Or H20?”
It suddenly dawned on Arana. These creatures were based on different chemistry. It had long been speculated this was possible. But they had never seen it.
Worse. These creatures weren’t steaming through space.
This was a colony ship.