Athena b had been surveyed some thirty years prior to the first settlements being opened to the public. First, deep space probes had reported on a suitable atmosphere on the second planet out from the system’s star, a K1 type body that weighed in 0.876 solar masses, and bathed the system in an orange hue. A small moon stabilised what would otherwise have been an uncomfortable degree of axial tilt (Athena d was a Saturn-sized body with sixty times the mass of the earth, and it exerted a powerful presence on the system). The moon had been dubbed Mykene, another name for Athena herself. The small rocky body had floated on even as the surface of Athena b had been ravaged, unperturbed by the machinations of sentient life forms.
The main city on Athena b, Thebes (once again named after Athena) had held the communications array that beamed messages back to the Commonwealth, and though Athena b was a new colony, and one reasonably far from the border with other species, it had been required by Commonwealth law to beam a message to the nearest system every three days – a means of verifying that everything was fine. The slow but steady flow of traffic in and out of the system had provided plenty of evidence that the planet was still spinning and its inhabitants were all A-Okay, but the law was the law. It took three days for the signal (a simple ‘hi, we’re all fine’) to reach the Delta Rama system, an older colony that spanned two habitable planets and with a population of nearly half a billion human beings. The failure to receive the signal was greeted with concern but not outright alarm – system failures were hardly unheard of, and there were ships emerging from warp space that had come from Athena whose crews reported nothing out of the ordinary. Worries grew when, after four days, the traffic out of Athena dried up completely.
Tight-beam signals were bandwidth intensive, and power-hungry, and only to be used in emergencies as they couldn’t be encrypted to any reasonable degree. It took twelve hours for the signal to reach Athena, with the expectation that it would be replied to almost immediately, with a return signal received more or less twelve hours later. Even so, Admiral Sonja Broadbent, commander of the Commonwealth Navy station that orbited Delta Rama d, ordered a pair of frigates that assisted the system to head to Athena to investigate, prior to the expected reply. At best speed, the ships covered the fourteen light-year distance in just under two days, averaging 0.3 light-years per hour. Their stocky structures slipped free of warp tendrils to discover they weren’t the first arrivals. The crew of the privately owned cargo vessel Spirit of the Sea had earned that particular misfortune.
“Shit. Shit shit shit shit!” First Mate Bobbie Kendrick fought to keep her emotions in check at the horrific sight. Athena had been a world bubbling with promise – the settlements had quickly grown into small cities and expanded from there, as ambitious, hard-working souls had irrigated fields, started to grow crops, develop mining operations, manufacture and sell products, and forge homes for themselves. Now that was all gone, reduced to ashes.
“Two million people…” Captain (a term she applied loosely in the informal environment of her ship) Lena Schäfer took in the same sight that the small viewscreen on the command deck displayed. They were alone in the small room, an informal affair compared to military ships with their set positions for each officer. Four round chairs, fixed to the floor but capable of swiveling, were once white but the leather had faded over the years and were now more cream in colour. The helm console to the right of the captain’s chair was where Kendrick sat, looking over her captain’s shoulder at the devastation below. The large navigational display in front of her was a virtual representation of what she could see on the viewscreen, except it painted everything in a blue hue, and offered up proximity alerts where needed. Her hand had instinctively gone to the chrome gear to the right of the screen, which, when slid forward, would activate the warp engine.
Now it retracted, that immediate urgency gone, replaced by shock. Tears began to well up in her eyes; Kendrick had known some of the colonists – not particularly well, but Spirit of the Sea was gaining a customer base and with it, a sense of familiarity with the people on Athena. That was now all gone.
“Bobbie, keep us a hundred thousand clicks from the planet and shut down the main engine. We’re switching to silent running.” Somehow Schäfer had kept her voice level; Bobbie could only carry out the orders numbly, trying not to let the magnitude of what had happened get to her. She envied Lena’s calm nature, but then, she always had.
“I’m going to tell the others, wait here.” Schäfer got out of her seat, and put a comforting hand on Bobbie’s shoulder, before stepping out of the command deck. When the door slid shut, Bobbie burst into tears.
Anthony Yau and Sanjay Menari sat on either side of the small glass table, clutching their coffee cups for comfort. Lena was sitting at the front of the table, having quickly explained what they’d found. Anthony stared down at the black liquid in his cup, unable to speak. Sanjay turned his thoughtful brown eyes upon his captain, his young, lean face contorted by shock.
“How did this happen? We’ve been coming here for six months, there are no asteroids that come anywhere near the planet, none.”
Lena didn’t answer straight away. Her mind was still racing to catch up to what she’d witnessed. She didn’t want to give voice to the awful idea forming in her mind, not yet.
“I don’t know what happened, but as we’re the only ship here we need to follow procedure and set up the beacon. I need you two to get it up and running, please. We’ll run our sensors around, see if we can learn anything, and transmit a signal back to Delta Rama. We’ll focus on our work, and wait for the Commonwealth, and help in any way we can.”
“How?” Asked Anthony. His voice was cracking, and Lena was reminded of how young he was. At twenty-two, he had only recently lost his teenage puppy fat, and spending the past few years working cargo on Spirit had seen him develop a lean yet muscular frame that did little to dispel his image of youth. With a mop of dark brown hair and hints of his Oriental heritage that seemed to enhance his grey eyes, Anthony looked innocent, and in many respects, was exactly that. Lena looked at him, seeing a man who was young enough to be her son.
“When other ships arrive – and they will – we will be faced with angry, grieving people. We’ll have to, somehow, organise them to avoid chaos.”
“No, I mean, how did the asteroids hit Athena? Like Sanjay said, they don’t come this close.”
“I don’t have an answer for that Tony. I wish I did. We’ll wait for the authorities, and in the meantime, see if we can learn anything that will help them. If we’re working, we’ll be focused, and that will help us. Let’s get to it.”
By the time the frigates arrived, they were welcomed by a semi-organised mass of civilian ships, that under Captain Schäfer’s guidance, had not descended into panic, though some had already jumped from the system, and were most likely spreading word of the terrible event to blight Athena. The dark blue hulls of the military vessels were narrow, with weapon ports sliding from recesses and locking into place to prepare for any threat. Thrusters to the rear of the ships fired up, trailing blue plasma as they moved closer to the planet.
Captain Sergio Coquelin watched as his crew buzzed about the command deck in a seemingly chaotic display, knowing that everyone was in fact moving to a finely tuned rythmn. Crew members carried tablets and sat at terminals, punching in data and relaying inforrmation to where it was most needed, whilst Coquelin sat in the rigid frame of his command chair and conducted the proceedings. He’d ordered the main viewer off; it made no sense to subject everyone to the horrifying image of Athena’s still-burning surface.
His four gold stripes – two on either shoulder of his navy-blue jacket – weighed heavily upon him. The straight-forward nature of combat was relatively easy for him to manage. Disaster relief was a different matter entirely, and to make it even more of a challenge, he was the senior commander of the two Lion-class frigates, by four years. Captain Tina Futrelle was a competent commander but Navy procedure mandated Coquelin take the lead, whether he wanted to or not. That meant every message coming in from the fifty-six civilian craft was being routed to Fearless, and everyone wanted to speak directly to him. Fortunately, his crew were handling matters with their usual efficiency, and he was grateful to Schäfer. She had possessed a calm and stablising presence that Coquelin had tended to only find in military officers. It had been no surprise to learn she had been in the service, albeit not for twenty-four years.
“Once we get a reply from Command, we’ll start routing all these civilian ships out of here. Are the beacons ready?” He asked of his first officer, seated beside him in a similar, uncomfortable chair.
“Yes sir.” Replied Commander Zara Jensen. She sat ramrod straight, turning only her head to look at him. “We can deploy them at your command.”
“Very good. Let’s get too it, and secure the system. This is going to take a while.”
To Chapter Four