The daily status meeting was, in general, a mockery of all things orderly. This was not unusual, even Hunter couldn’t bring himself to admit they were more than a joke. If any of the department heads had anything important to say, they typically found the person who needed to hear it, and said it. The meetings were just part of the routine, scheduled by protocol.
Today, the meeting began with Cindy playing what she sincerely hoped was Tullona’s national anthem at full volume. The next half hour was spent sharing various interesting bits of information discovered about the planet while attempting to perform routine duties. It was actually sort of entertaining, for a while.
“Here’s the thing,” Jason began uncomfortably. “I found part of a data log. Apparently that burst has been kicking around between dozens of off-network relay stations for God knows how long, and it would have continued bouncing if it hadn’t hit us in the face.. The time codes are all corrupted, I can’t tell you how long it’s been going for, I’m not even sure where Tullona is.”
Cindy, who had been craned over one of the portable consoles and listening to something with a set of earphones, now looked up gravely.
“That could be a bad thing,” she gulped. “Here, I found an audio recording, listen to this!”
She pulled the headphones out of the jack and replayed the file, quickly adjusting the volume down from what she’d been playing the music at. It was a man’s voice, older, and he seemed to be speaking with slow deliberation.
“My name is Gavin Rasmen,” he said. “And I am… I am a scientist. I discovered your probe only a few short weeks ago. I don’t know who you are or why you’re watching us, but it is clear you possess a vastly superior intellect.
“I… we… need your help. Please respond.”
“That sounds like it was definitely directed at our listening station,” Jason observed.
“We should ask him what’s wrong,” Cindy said quickly. “Try and help!”
Jason pulled the console over to him and stared at it for a moment.
“That transmission was picked up on an N-space band,” he said. “The station can’t transmit on normal frequencies, only sub-space data pulse.”
“Well… then, let’s go!” Cindy called. “Saddle up the horses, charge across araba!”
“It’s not that simple,” Jason began.
“Maybe it can be,” Hunter cut in. “Jason, could you figure out where Tullona is?”
“It’s got to be somewhere in the ANG-fifteen cluster,” Jason replied. “Relatively close, in inter-stellar terms.”
“Then lay in a course,” Hunter ordered.
“But—” Jason started.
“Lay in a course,” Hunter repeated, then turned to Cindy. “Best possible speed.”
* * *
“I’ve been trying to nail-down Tullona’s location,” Jason said. “Apparently none of the information gathered since the Tullonians discovered radio waves made it home before the listening network was crippled. To make it more interesting, there are at least a dozen pre-industrial civilizations recorded in ANG-fifteen. If I can figure out exactly which listening station the burst originated from, we’ll be all set.”
“Well, I’ve been cataloging information,” Cindy said. “Pulling everything I could out of the damaged systems. I found another message, I think I know what’s wrong.”
Cindy flipped her portable console around and hit the play button.
“—comet went public today,” Gavin’s voice echoed. “Mass panic, pretty much what we were expecting. The government was… just not prepared for this sort of chaos. We’ll get through it, though; there’s still time. Always time…”
“It sorta guts off, there,” Cindy frowned. “Apparently the Tullonians had pretty recently emerged from a long dark-age. Like, literally a hundred years ago they didn’t even have electricity. And they’re already exploring space.”
“And they found a comet, hurtling towards Tullona,” Jason pointed out. “Kind of a kick in the teeth, if you think about it.”
“Wait, comet, or asteroid?” Rian cut in. “Its kind of important.”
“Comet,” Cindy confirmed. “I found a few news reports, some other stuff, its definitely a comet.”
“Well, then that’s easy,” Rian waved. “Even if it’s close enough to poke with a really long stick, we can help out. A few whacks from the AH cannon and bob’s your uncle, no more comet.”
“Do a complete systems check,” Hunter ordered. “We may have to fire as soon as we drop out of FTL. Jason, your top priority is to figure out where that signal originated.”
“I’m on it,” Jason nodded.
* * *
“It’s not like I’m afraid to die,” Gavin’s disembodied voice said. “I mean, I don’t consider myself old, and I’ve had a good life, but… I believe it’s Tullona that’s not ready to go quietly. We’ve only just stepped out, broken free of our bonds… we’re capable of so much, why can’t we overcome this?”
Cindy listened as she lay in Hunter’s bed. He was already sound asleep and snoring quietly, but she couldn’t stop staring into the darkness. The portable console was face-down on her stomach, and she’d been listening to Gavin’s messages for the past hour. His voice had a soft, fatherly-feel to it; even embroiled in desperation, there was this calmness about him.
Lifting up the console and squinting against the bright light, Cindy found another recording and put it on.
“We did the math, today, when the comet got close enough to see with standard light-telescopes. Our distance calculations were too high, our mass calculations too low. We don’t have weapons, not anymore. We threw them all away, we haven’t needed them in centuries. We threw them away when the best we had were iron swords and copper shields. Our rockets could carry bombs, but we have none strong enough to even leave a scar on that thing. We haven’t given up, not yet. When life gives you lemons… etc.”
Sighing, Cindy checked to be sure there were no more messages, and turned the console off, letting it slide gently to the floor. The Tullonians were running out of time.