Brigitte Nenet woke to two immediate impressions. The tiny tiny movement of baby Lenarra inside of her, just 18 weeks old and already starting to assert herself. Then there was Marty, husband and now father, spooning behind her. She glanced at her phone on the nightstand and knew why she was awake. There was a text waiting for her. Three in the morning and someone was wanting her. She sighed heavily and reluctantly reached out to it. She hesitated once more before reading it, knowing that she'd never get back to sleep if she did. Finally she read it and put the phone back down. Damn. It was too important to ignore. Too interesting to go back to sleep. She set the phone down and peeled herself away from Marty. Too early. Just too early. Getting out of bed without waking Marty was easy. That man could sleep through anything, she thought. Lucky.
The apartment was already warm at 70 degrees, but that was Tehran in July. Still, she'd need coffee and quiet time to digest the news. And she'd also need a few minutes of what she thought of as talk with her daughter. Marty had bought her an old fashioned journal, beautifully handcrafted in the old way with papyrus. It was expensive and impractical in this age of electronic everything. But it was also a tangible link to the old world and a reminder that they shared a love for the written word. And of course, the government had no way to track and catalogue words written in ink upon papyrus. That papyrus journal had become her continuing letter to Lenarra to be opened at her daughter's discretion. So she sat at the table, listening to Marty snore, with a coffee by her side, the journal and pen in front of her, and baby Lenarra resting.
"Lenarra, the world I live in is a dark place sometimes. It's scary and challenging. Sometimes it's hard to know who to fear the most. The government that protects us, or those from whom we need that protection. We have freedom and peace. People who used to hate each other are now brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and lovers. But the price of that freedom is sometimes fear, and the price of that peace is the knowledge that there are eyes everywhere. You wouldn't think that the two conditions could coexist, but somehow they manage to. We are safe here on Earth, but we are also confined. You will not live in that world. Your father and I will either change it for you, or we will take you to another. You will live in a world that is not constrained to the trade-off of peace for freedom. Tomorrow I'll tell you about your father. You'll fall in love with him, just like I did." With that she closed the book and picked up her phone. The text was there, dragging her from the quiet personal conversation with Lenarra to the inescapable electronic today with its shocking news.
"Good morning," Marty said from the doorway. "Technically it is morning. So what's up?"
She drank her coffee down quickly and handed him her phone. "The ESA is going to the Oort Cloud."
"According to Maury they detected a radio pulse from within the cloud. Something's out there."
"Marty, they've already slated a mission. They're apparently fighting for funding, but they'll go one way or another. And they wouldn't if there wasn't anything out there."
"The Oort Cloud is nothing but ice and dirt."
"And it's a hundred light-days away. Marty, they have a reason to go, which means that we have a reason to get there first."
"We," Marty said.
"Yes, we. Both of us."
"Babe, when you say 'us' you're talking about the three of us."
She didn't try to hide her annoyance. "Why are you doing this?"
"I'm not trying to be an ass, Brig. I know you're a doctor and you know what's best for her more than I do. But if we're going to get out there, that far, we can't go at sublight speed and expect to get there first. An ESA cruiser will get there in minutes. At relativistic speed, at .99 the speed of light, we won't get there for, what, a hundred days? More maybe."
"And since civilians are prohibited from FTL flight in-system..."
Marty thought about the coffee maker on the counter. He really wanted a coffee for this discussion, but he didn't want to take the time to make it. "Harry Est brought in a Tsantarii warp sled a few days ago. It's inside an asteroid that we can get to in about six hours."
Brigitte walked to the coffee maker and started it for Marty. "Where did Harry get a Tsantarii warp sled?"
"Where does anybody get an illegal warp sled? From a friend of a friend of a contact who got it from somewhere we don't want to think about." After waiting for the cup to brew, he took it and sipped at it. "The sled will adapt to a sublight rental Prospector we can shuttle up to from Riyadh."
"You sound like this was your idea from the start."
"No, of course not. I was just thinking that if we decide to get out before-."
"If she isn't born on Earth they'll have no jurisdiction over her."
She kissed him on his forehead. "I know. I don't know if we're quite there yet. I like Earth. I don't think it's beyond fixing. But we'll keep the sled. Just in case."
"Okay," he answered. "I'll call Harry and make sure it's ready to go."
"Good," she said. "We've got an eighteen hour launch window for our ice fishing. That leaves time of breakfast."
By three o'clock that afternoon, they were in a rented Ev'nan-registered Prospector utility craft designed for light asteroid mining and adaptable to a number of makes and models of attachments. Whether the enigmatic Ev'nan had intended their Prospectors to be adaptable to Tsantarii warp sleds or the even more exotic and xenophobic Tsantarii used the same modular docking components that the rest of the galaxy employed was uncertain. But the Prospector locked easily and naturally inside the spherical sled, and Marty and Brigitte were soon outside the orbit of Pluto and heading for rest of the Kuiper belt. "Prospector power cut off," Brigitte said from the utility craft's control panel. "In three- two- one-. Mark."
"Engaging warp," Marty said. The quantum drive reached out elemental fingertips, folding space/time from an empty space just past Pluto to the far more distant shell of icy bodies that formed the Oort Cloud. And suddenly, with neither fanfare nor fireworks, they were there. "Everything still good babe?"
Brigitte punched up the video feed on the Prospector's monitor. It showed a computer-generated image of the spherical warp sled hanging over an icy rock. "We are where we're supposed to be. We have power and sensors. And Lenarra is quiet."
"Good good good," he answered, only then realizing that his breath was short. "Detaching clamps. Retracting door. You'll be free in a sec."
"Acknowledged. As soon as the Prospector has separated I'll activate short range sensors. That should take me right to it." The small craft shuddered as the physical connection between the sled and the Prospector was severed. Then it shuddered again as magnetic constrictors were released. That was the last connection between the two craft, and now it was completely safe to activate the ship's onboard power systems. One large switch did that, and then she flipped a series of smaller ones, activating short range sensors and exterior cameras. That brought a flood of light to the monitor that slowly slid out of view. The sled was opening its maw and allowing the Prospector to slip out.
Half an hour later, she was piloting the small craft just above the icy surface with no radio transmissions detected. If the Earth Star Empire's long range sensors were pinged from this far away, it should be easy to find close up. They'd even heard it from just past the orbit of Mars. "How long ago was the last burst?"
"That's not a simple question, babe." Marty answered. "Taking into account the fact that it was an old fashioned radio signal that took months to reach the sensor net in the Mars Defense Perimeter, really, there would have been several while we were skipping over subjective time."
"Dammit Marty, I don't want a science lesson. When was the last burst?"
"Subjectively? Observationally? Based on anecdotal information? Because it's really not a simple, easy answer sitting out here."
"Here's a simple, easy question for you," she knew he was playing with her, and she struggled to keep the amusement out of her voice. "Based on subjective, anecdotal information, how long ago did this thing send a burst?"
She heard him chuckle over the comm link. "Sorry. As far as I can tell, just under three hours ago."
"Okay. And do we know how long before that?"
"Just a second." There was silence, during which she assumed he was checking pirated logs. "Yep. Three point one-four. In fact, there's a long string of regular bursts at the same interval."
"So if it stays constant, we should get another in just about a half hour?"
"Yes. You know, Brig, this begs a question."
"What are we going to do with it?"
"That depends on what it is," she answered as her eye remained glued to the round radar-like sensor display. "Who knows, really?"
"My point being, if we do anything to interrupt its transmissions-".
"If we even manage to get inside of whatever it is-".
"Then they'll know that someone's out here and beat them to it."
"Yes," Brigitte said without elaborating.
"We'll have to disappear for a while."
"I know. How good do you think this warp sled really is?"
"And the Prospector that we'd be stealing from an honest business?" Marty hated stealing anything. "I don't know. There is Wolf 359 we could probably safely reach. Alpha Centauri B. Proxima Centauri. Epsilon Eridani. Tau Ceti. Sirius A. Procyon, 61 Cygni A and B,. There are a few choices."
"Most of which with heavy Earth presence."
"Most of which, yeah," he answered. "But Alpha Centauri B and Tau Ceti not so much."
"The failed colony sites," she answered. "Yes. We might have to think about that. Stop for a while, make a few decisions." She yawned. "How much longer?"
"Not long. A few minutes."
"Okay, here's a question for you, science man. Are we on the right side of this rock to pick up the signal?"
"Yes mother, we are."
"Good," she answered. "I'm getting tired of waiting." A rumbling in her belly echoed her feelings. "And so is Lenarra."
"Two women now," Marty said. "I don't stand a chance."
"No you don't." She smiled at the thought. "But seriously. You know, we don't even know how big this thing is. We might not be able to take it with us."
"We don't even know what it is or what it means."
"No, but it's important," she said. "And we'll know soon enough."
"Yes," he said. "It should be any time now."
"Good." Then there was a spike of white on her sensor screen. "Bingo!" She tapped a control to save the image, and superimposed it on a topographical map of the rock. "Okay. Yeah I'm actually pretty close. Just need to drop down." She manipulated the simple joystick built into the column, dropping the utility craft to within twenty feet from the surface. "Coming up on the source in just a minute-".
In the warp sled, Marty waited with mounting frustration as she was silent. He wanted to be down there. "Hey? What's up? Talk to me."
"It's okay," she said, sounding busy and distracted. "Hang on. I'm at the surface. Just drilling a small hole."
"Marty, chill out. It's okay. I need to get under the ice to get to this thing."
"Are you right over it?"
"Yes, I'm right over it." She sounded irritated. "Marty I've done this before, remember? I'll be careful."
Brigitte mumbled under her breath below the audio pick-up range. God bless him, Marty was a wonderful man. Worries like a mother hen, but he'd be a wonderful father if she didn't kill him first. She switched on the extender drill and dropped it towards the icy surface. Then she hesitated. This really was it. A big moment. She slowly dipped the control stick, and the drill hit the surface. "We're in. Just need to go down about a foot." As the drill dug into the ice, she watched the scanner. "What are these things made of?"
"Water. Methane. Ammonia. A few other things. Why?"
"This one isn't. It's metal of some kind. Weird. It's flying apart as the drill goes through it, like its meant to. Like an ablative shield of some kind. Designed to absorb damage to protect something-"
"Stop!" Marty sounded scared. "Is this an Imperial sensor post?"
"No, it's not. This metal, whatever it is, didn't come from Earth or any of its holdings. If it did the scanner would identify it. Marty it's okay. It's not Imperial. But I don't know what it is." She stopped to take a breath and think. "Okay. I'm going to get a sample. Wait." A small flexible tube dropped out of the bottom of the craft, snaking the few feet to the surface and the hole that she'd drilled. Like the vacuum in their apartment, it pulled loose debris up, dropping it into a sealed compartment. "I've got the sample. And I'm close to whatever it was that sent the transmission. Hang on." As the vacuum withdrew into the craft, the drill continued. Then it stopped. "Got it. Marty, it's small. Round. About six inches across. Just sitting there in a small hollow."
"And that's the source?"
"Yes. No doubt about it. No apparent power source or connections, but this is it." She dropped another extender from the bottom of the craft. This one was fitted with manipulator digits, suitable for picking up delicate objects. "I'm taking it up."
Inside the darkened cockpit of the warp sled, Marty felt his heart beating hard. Her calm voice from the Prospector only seemed to agitate him more. "You'd better set coordinates for a jump," she said.
"Alpha Centauri B?"
"I guess so. But not to stay. We're going home, babe."
"I know. As soon as you have that thing secured, come back up here. I want to get away fast." Without waiting for her answer, he scanned the Prospector. He just wanted to know that she was okay, and Lenarra with her. Then his breath caught. "Brigitte?"
"What? I'm almost there. Just wait. It's okay."
"That thing. That transmitter, whatever it is-?"
"What? Marty what's wrong?"
to be continued...