Today's post comes out of The Concourse to Victory, third volume of the Course Books. The story is titled Forbidden, and has very close ties to The Sun Also Rises from The Path to Ascension.
“Mission Control, this is Saratoga,” J'Nall said importantly into the COM. “Requesting final clearance for GATE-point interface.”
“Yeah, you and every other Tom, Dick, and Harry in the fleet,” the voice on the other side snapped. “You’ll go when you go, get in line already, buddy-boy!”
J'Nall glanced over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow at Hunter, who shrugged uncertainly, then signaled for an open channel.
“Jen, I know it’s your job to give people a hard time,” Hunter said casually. “But this ship has priority clearance for a top-secret mission which I can’t even discuss with my crew until we’re in deep space, so could you hurry this along?”
“Oh… all right,” Jensen huffed over the COM link. “But only because you’re the hero of Cori Celesti! Normally ex-boyfriends get vague indifference and sarcasm. You’re lucky you saved an entire planet, mister!”
Hunter signaled to J'Nall to turn the channel off, then bring up ship-wide.
“Attention all hands!” Hunter shouted. “Prepare for a level-one GATE-point interface, shut down all exterior monitors!”
The screens didn’t actually need to be shut off because of the light pulse associated with GATE travel; they couldn’t possibly display enough of the exterior burst to be dangerous. Actually the screens needed to be shut down to avoid them damaging themselves, trying to accurately portray external conditions.
The main screen went down and Hunter felt a surprising jolt of nothing. This was followed by four or five seconds of intense nothing, permeated with spontaneous non-sensations.
And then they were there.
“Navigation, get our bearings,” Hunter ordered. “Then establish a holding pattern and cook the engines, Saratoga’s been in star-dock for a while and I don’t want any surprises. Department heads run final diagnostics, all senior staff report to the briefing room.”
“That was a mouthful,” Jason commented.
“Yes it was,” Hunter agreed.
* * *
“All right, folks,” Hunter announced as the ship’s senior staff gathered in the small briefing room off the Saratoga’s main bridge. “Let me start by asking a rhetorical question; does everyone here know what ‘classified’ means?”
The officers all rolled their eyes and gestured for Hunter to get on with it.
“Well, this mission happens to be ‘classified’,” Hunter explained. “So extremely classified, I don’t even know what it is!
“No, seriously, they didn’t tell me.
“Actually I’d like to theorize that my superiors haven’t got a clue why they’re sending us out here, but Instructor Gailen kinda explained the deal.
“We are approaching an area of space controlled by a people called the Runarins.
“Runaria was one of the founding nations of the Unity Earth Sphere Alliance, and one of the few countries to come out of the Mage Wars more or less intact and with a reasonable level of technology.
“As a result, they got a pretty good jump on space exploration, and have been responsible for charting a substantial portion of the Known Worlds belonging to the Alliance.
“They also managed to take hold of and control a pretty large chunk of space in the final days of the war. Their territory actually makes up close to three percent of the Alliance, triple the size of the next largest nation. But, by population they come in pretty far from the top. Runarins seem to value their space, which is why they took over so much of it.
“Now the school has been around for a long time, and the Foundation even longer, and between the two have explored more space than anyone. But, they also don’t really believe in re-inventing the wheel. Whenever they encounter a new race, they make a point of trading for their star charts. Manned Foundation vessels have only surveyed maybe twenty percent of the solar systems we have on record, for the most part we like to take our ally’s word.
“But a recent correlative update as part of the Universal Mapping Initiative came up with a rather sizeable error: three stars in Runarin space that do not appear on any charts. We never surveyed Runarin space; in fact the Foundation has no presence there.
“Our telescopes were digging pretty deep into subspace, and the light being captured is still tens of thousands of years old. But stars don’t go anywhere, and a few of these are much too young to have gone nova by themselves.
“Our mission, ladies and gentlemen, is to penetrate Runarin space and explore this blind spot on the Runarin maps. Any questions?”
“After they eat, do amphibians have to wait an hour before getting out of the water?” Kendrick asked.
“Any questions related to the task at hand?” Hunter clarified with a roll of his eyes.
“Yes, why haven’t we just asked the Runarins?” Jason inquired.
“Diplomatic avenues are being explored at this time,” Hunter responded. “But so far all the Runarins have said is that they ‘do not discuss those systems’. The area of space is, in a bold cliché, called ‘The Forbidden Zone’. No ship, not even Runarin, may enter. Up until now, the school hasn’t had any reason to disobey the Runarins’ wishes.”
“And intelligence?” Jason pressed.
“We haven’t got anyone on the ground,” Hunter admitted. “Runaria’s always been friendly but closed. They aren’t interested in what we have and they haven’t got anything worth taking. Their scientists visit annual symposiums, we have their star charts, and other than that, they are no more technologically advanced than most of the Alliance. Runaria had enough of war over six millennia ago, they’re at peace with all their neighbors, they’d just as soon have nothing to do with us; and as far as the Foundation is concerned, they’re already a perfect model of what we’d like the rest of the Multi-Verse to be. The School’s been happy just to leave well enough alone, until now anyway.”
“Why now, aside from the missing solar systems?” Jason pressed. “And why of all the millions of Foundation and School ships already on active rotation, would they pull the Saratoga out of the mothballs and send her?”
“Top secret,” Hunter tapped his nose. “Active rotation Gudersnipe ships must report their whereabouts and headings to the Alliance Space Commission, while on maneuvers within Alliance territory. Over half that Commission is made up of Runarins, so they’d notice if an active ship were diverted in the direction of Runarin space.
“Add to that the Saratoga has the Satyaran cloaking device,” Hunter continued. “We brought three completed units back with us from Remus, one installed on the Saratoga and another stored in our hold. The third was turned over to the School, who’ve been trying to reproduce it ever since. For some reason they just can’t quite get the knack right. We’re the only ones with a fully functional cloaking device, NMG, and the expertise to use them properly. That’s why the Saratoga has been slated for this mission.”
* * *
The senior staff dispersed back to their duty stations and Hunter took up residence in his chair. He liked the chair; it gave him quite a feeling of power when he sat in it. Not just of the weapons he wielded, but of the respect he commanded. He was the captain of a starship, and no one could take that away.
“Cindy, stealth mode, if you please,” Hunter ordered. “Set heading for the Runarin Forbidden Zone and engage at FTL Factor Ten.”
“Aye, sir,” Cindy nodded.
“You realize of course,” Jason said quietly from his station. “There could be very interesting things there. There could also be nothing. And given Runaria’s tendency towards neutrality, I’d lean towards nothing. Neutral men have nothing to hide.”
“You think so?” Hunter replied slyly. “What do you think it is that makes men turn neutral, hmm? Power? Lust for gold? Or were they just born with hearts full of neutrality? In any event, you don’t erase an entire stellar cluster from recorded history just for laughs.”
“Unless you’re an over-worked GS Stellar Cartographer,” Rian pointed out from Tactical. “You remember the Visuban Incident? Remember?”
Hunter rolled his eyes and Jason nodded knowingly. The Visuban Cluster was a patch of maybe a thousand stars at the outer edge of an Elliptical Galaxy, charted by one of Gudersnipe’s earliest deep-space probes in the Second Age. Somewhere around the Fourth Age, an over-worked, under-appreciated student completing a correlative update of GS star charts had a nervous break down, and erased the Visuban Cluster from records because it ‘seemed funny at the time’. The student was later diagnosed with clinical psychosis and treated with a swift kick in the rear followed by a long vacation. Because the student was working on a correlative update, when the job was finally completed it triggered a subroutine in the main computer that erased that cluster—and all related information—from the School’s central database. Since the entire Foundation used the school’s database, the Visuban Cluster was effectively removed from all knowledge.
The mistake was eventually discovered and remedied, late in the Fifth Age. To this day, residents of the cluster remain bitter toward the Gudersnipe Foundation, and the Visuban Ambassador to the Alliance Counsel in Arindell shoots out the light on the front porch of the Foundation Embassy every Heritage Festival.
This practice of course first began as an act of rage and retribution which the Foundation agreed was ‘well and truly justified’ and did not press charges. As the years passed, it became a tradition, and now hundreds of spectators in Kevlar gather each year around the Gudersnipe Foundation’s Embassy gates in Arindell and cheer as a black, unmarked car with the headlights off drives up, rolls down the window, issues a single shot, and speeds away. Very few spectators are injured annually.
* * *
Hunter glanced quickly at the side viewer, then turned back to the main screen. The only sign of anything in sight or sensor range was one warning beacon, which was coincidentally what they’d come here looking for in the first place.
It had been picked up on sub-space, hundreds of light years out, near the edge of where they thought the Runarin ‘Forbidden Zone’ might be. With the beacon on main viewer and the crew on the edge of their seats, the Saratoga began passive sensor sweeps. The cloaking system made her fully invisible to all active sensors, but it also kept her from activating her own active systems.
It was little more than a probe, a sphere six feet in diameter, covered in reflective solar panels. Solar-powered technology outside a solar system was incredibly rare, owing mostly to its sheer pointlessness. In inter-stellar space, beyond a star’s heliosphere, the amount of energy that could even be gathered was negligible. The entire surface area coated in the most efficient solar panels even Gudersnipe could produce, would barely generate enough electricity to run a coffee pot.
A cheap one.
That only made kind of lukewarm coffee.
“Have you gotten into the thing’s computer yet?’ Hunter asked nervously. He wasn’t sure why, but something about being here made him shiver. Something just felt… off.
“No,” Jason replied almost gravely.
The Saratoga’s Science Station where he was working had the most optimized interface terminal on the ship, owing to the two years it had had with a real science officer at the post. While the ship frequently went exploring, Saratoga was at heart a weapon.
Jessica, the Saratoga’s first and last science officer, had left more than just an empty station on Hunter’s bridge; she had left a void in his crew. The benefits of a fulltime scientist were clearly spelled out by the Remus mission logs, and Crimson Blade ships now carried scientists. But every Gudersnipe student was supposed to be a scientist, so the school saw no need for that designation on the roster.
But Jessica saw the world differently than every GS student on the ship. Sure, they all had advanced scientific training, but they also had extensive military and tactical conditioning. “Everything has a military solution in your world,” Jessica often told Hunter. She more than once accused him of classifying the entire Multi-Verse in terms of ‘things that can be blown up, and things that can’t’, and since she was right, it demonstrated a very valid point: she perceived the world differently than the rest of the crew.
There was nothing worse than trying to do a job with the wrong tools.
Jason was not a hacker by nature. He was a thinker, a scholar, and the only member of the Saratoga’s crew who had received advanced computer security training, but he lacked the proper mind set for the task. His solutions were usually elegant and slow, and meant to be reusable. This kind of problem called for a quick and dirty, forceful response.
“How secure would they really make a warning beacon out in the middle of nowhere?” Hunter asked.
“Not very,” Jason replied. “So far the biggest hurdle I’ve encountered was a password. It was parachute.”
“Well if that’s the case why’s it taking so long?” Hunter demanded.
Jason didn’t say anything for a long time.
“At first I thought it was just the way the thing was programmed,” Jason said. “But it’s starting to look intentional.”
“That message,” Jason leaned back and scratched his head. “About this being off limits and restricted space. Takes like five minutes to play. There’s no way to stop it, no way to bypass it, and I get the feeling if I try to delete it I’ll get into real trouble. The computer system’s got no security, it’s just a maze. And everywhere you turn, there’s this message. I’d like to give up actually, just to stop hearing it…”
“Well,” Hunter grimaced. “You’re under orders not to give up. So don’t give up.”
Cindy turned from her console at the helm and looked sternly at Hunter.
“What are we doing here?” she asked. “What is our purpose for being in this god-forsaken region of space?”
“That’s a good question,” Hunter replied. “Helm’s not going to need tending for a while, get on the database and find out.”
Cindy’s lip quavered in anger for a moment. Hunter could tell she hated these scavenger hunts through the ship’s digital library, but she was also the best at them. Hunter knew there’d be hell to pay from his friend and teammate later, but for now her outburst was a pleasant excuse to put her to work.