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Date: 1,993,085 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 14,520 (Shango), N.A. 1458 (Qareen)
Location: Oxide system

1

The ship sped past various stars and planets, pausing to note that most of the systems they formed were uninhabited; nothing unusual about that, and there was little else of real interest among them either. None of the hundred-strong crew were going to hang around. They had almost unanimously voted for the ship to be named Seven Seminal Discoveries (92), and they meant it. The ship itself was new enough to have not even made one such discovery, let alone seven, but this crew was confident; as the daring pioneers of a race who were often almost resigned to their second-degree power in the galaxy, they wanted to show their more conservative peers that they were wrong, and that the Cosmic Charter Republic of Stoppan had plenty of prestige to claim. Their time would come, and people like this ship’s crew were convinced that they could make it come sooner.

They had become even more convinced once their journey had taken them outside of the reaches of Stoppan space, several hundred parsecs past Res 116, the last Stoppan-inhabited planet in the direction they were heading in, and the long-range sensors had picked up, beyond the relatively bare region of space, one particularly bright, star-forming region of space, where interstellar gas grew in density and supernovae flung heavier elements into the mix. There was more than mere astronomical curios, however; close analysis, one that involved pushing the sensors to the limit and then teasing out the data, zooming in on specific areas until they underwent the mathematical equivalent of pixellation, revealed that there were odd spikes and jumps in the density that were either unnatural, or an entirely new discovery altogether.

The Shango’s database, which they had syndicated with the Stoppan even since first contact with the Dharans, suggested that they knew nothing about these strange spikes, but then the database was not necessarily a complete one as they received it. Even so, the captain, Zshann of Manres 2, felt that slight tingle of hope as he moved about the bridge. Hope that, eventually, they would find out something that the Shango did not, something genuinely important, rather than the small discoveries of uninhabited star systems that the Federation could not be made to give a damn about.

Zshann had occasionally wondered if this attitude, especially across hundreds of worlds, was exactly healthy, but then again, it was no doubt just competitiveness, the desire of a relatively young, upstart nation.

Still the Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) plunged on, and the captain looked to the main screen at the front, purporting to show some kind of view ahead, as if travelling faster than light could still show a perfectly clear view anyway, and as if having a window on the ship would in any way prove practical. The screen did at least tell the captain, however, that he was less than one Earth day away from reaching the anomalies. And this time, he thought, a sliver of ignorance from the Federation just might out…

2

The Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) was six short of its eponymous promise one Earth day later, when it came across the anomalies. Of course, this was only in one sense; as Zshann suspected, it transpired that the Shango almost certainly knew about this place.

The place itself was around one-tenth of a parsec from a star that the Shango had apparently not named, the database merely granting it an automatic register number. The light from the screen’s “true view” only gave hints and outlines, but the lightened holographic display, with the lights on the bridge dimmed for contrast and the light of the image boosted, revealed the true horror of what they saw; an immense cloud of floating debris. Through the rain of metal, gradually floating in all directions, there slowly emerged vast, charred hulks of recognisable metal, long, aesthetically brutal, box-like hulls mixed with similarly twisted, broken and charred discs.

“Captain?” a minor bridge officer prompted as a holographic wreck headed towards his head.

“A battle. A battle we were never told about,” the captain said.

“Impossible,” replied Piret of Res 19, his second-in-command, moving through a mass of shards in his area, “we had an alliance with the Shango. One of necessity, for sure, but they trusted us. We were updated on everything.”

“Perhaps not this,” the captain said, “and besides, sometimes you can’t trust a member of your own species. Why think that you can always trust another?”

Piret was stumped, and he remained silent. All the captain and most of the bridge crew could do was look at the mass of debris and wonder why they had not been entrusted with what they were seeing.

The pilot, Keyisij of Res 56, had the task of trying to pull the ship through the mess. There were shields, sure, but they were not for situations like this. There was route plotters on the computer screens, too, but they had their limits.

Along with him, three others over the captain’s left shoulder worked quickly to filter and examine the data bursting in from the sensors, but they were perhaps the one real contrast on the bridge to the otherwise universal numb confusion.

Zshann thought as he scanned over the scene, down one avenue of logic, which transpired to be a cul-de-sac, turning back, and repeating the process. A Shango ship, spinning in a strange, widthwise manner, distracted him, but also churned up an idea.

“Can we get any magnification on a Shango ship? Preferably an intact one,” he requested as he stood up and shoved his head through the simulacra of an ideal example and a shower of pieces bouncing off it.

Someone at holographics set to work on it.

“Good plan, captain,” Piret agreed, “although, are you expecting to send a team out?”

“Maybe.”

“They wouldn’t like that back at Res 33,” he said much more quietly.

“They wouldn’t like this back at Res 33,” the captain retorted, “it’s good of you to quote protocol, Piret. I mean that. But we’ve got a political situation here. The truth has to out.”

3

It took several minutes to transmit the data completely from the ship, and it would take quite possibly days, perhaps in Earth terms weeks, in order for it to reach Res 33 and the relevant high offices there. Still, it was all Zshann could do, as well as signal an omnidirectional broadcast at Shango frequencies.

“Either explain,” he had told them, “or we’ll find an explanation.”

Of course, if that was in any way a truthful offer, then it was an invitation for them to lie, so the captain made an each-way bet and sent out a team to find out the unvarnished truth on a relatively intact ship. They found one, albeit one that had no life support systems and most likely, they surmised, no Grab systems at all.

As it transpired, the three-person team that had found their way onto the ship – which was intact enough to be identified as the SFS Surgical Strike – found that the Grab systems fluctuating wildly instead; in one corner of a room, normal, Shango, lighter-than-Stoppan-average artificial gravity ensued; in another, it could be jittery, its hold on the person’s body tenuous, and in another, it could be non-existent, and so the person stood there would float in zero gravity, until they arced downwards into a Grab-affected area again.

After some time of this, they reached the bridge, and from there, they reckoned that the central systems, if they were still there, would yield exactly what happened, at least in part. There was no reason to suggest that they wouldn’t, in the team’s eyes – the ship had taken a few hull breaches, after a complete externally induced shield failure, and the crew no doubt suffered the fate of exposure whilst the ship merely drifted through the carnage, for years bumping into other ships that came off worse in such collisions.

They reached the bridge, the three of them, and spotted the collapsed roof centre. From there they could see into the space beyond, although a dull glint from one piece of debris as it span past, most likely kilometres away, was all they could really see. Holographics had explained what was going on outside so much better than mere sight.

Around the banks, computers lay dormant. Strapping the large crate they had to the floor – the bridge seemed to have no Grab at all – they held onto railings and attempted to figure out the layout of the ship.

“Let’s hope there’s reserve power,” Likea of Banres began. She pointed to the Tracklayer’s booth. “That might be most useful for data. Possibly also First Pivot.”

The other two, Fetric of Res 202 and Miye of Res 97, began to move in those two directions. Likea bumped along to where she hoped some sort of power switch could be found; she found a switch, flicked it in hope, and the bridge lighting flickered into life, although it continued to flicker afterwards.

“No power in the booth,” Fetric explained.

Likea tried another switch.

“First Pivot power,” Miye said.

She tried another next to it.

“Booth online,” Fetric said, and he strapped himself, cumbersome suit and all, into the chair.

4

Zshann,

I am writing to you with the need to press several understandings into the minds of you and your crew. The first of these understandings is that what you have stumbled upon is quite literally secret and restricted information that, across the Shango Federation, is privy to just three individuals at any one time, myself included. It is for these reasons that I have been reluctant to reply to your message, but given that you have no doubt relayed data to Res 33, I will nonetheless give all the details I deem necessary.

What you have come across is the site, broadly speaking, of the Battle of the Oxide System, so named for the oxygen deposits emanating from the nearby star. The battle took place in W.Y. 433, towards the end of the Fifth Intersection War. At the time, Qareen forces had moved deep into our galaxy, and were threatening not only to take the Intersection Zone but a substantial part of what was undeniably our galaxy. The Oxide System was the furthest the Qareen got, as we committed high numbers of ships towards defending it; however, as we did so, similarly high numbers of ships arrived to attack. The fighting was intense, the situation grew desperate and shots were fired at incredibly close quarters, sometimes a mere few kilometres – hence the reason, as you can see, why the debris is still only spread across half a parsec in all directions after thousands of years.

The end result was effectively a draw, a result not good enough for the Qareen, who withdrew from the area and were subsequently pushed back to the Intersection Zone. However, the sheer size of losses on the Federation side were unacceptably high by any military standard – over 5,000 Shango ships were destroyed, and one went missing, never to return – and in the midst of a war effort, to announce the result, even if it was effective victory, would have been highly destructive in terms of propaganda; knowing that the Qareen could come so close to claiming both galaxies would have ruined the Federation. And so, for security reasons, we have suppressed this knowledge ever since.

We imagine at this point that your entire people are now privy to this state secret. We have passed on a form of this message to Res 33. The Federation will come down hard on anyone who disseminates this information in the CCR. We hope you understand and heed this message.

The Office of the President of the Shango Federation.

“Piret, what do you notice about this message?”

The second-in-command studied the text carefully.

“There’s a ship out there and the Shango can’t find it.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

5

On the second through fourth decks of the Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) was a series of large laboratories, and the second one of these was devoted to informational analysis. In a table at the centre of the lab was a small gold cube, and from its contact through the table, computers throughout the lab were able to pick up raw data, and holographic projectors were able to transmit an extrapolation of what the data meant.

“The information is very much incomplete,” one of the lab staff admitted, “the fact that some ships being fired at are damaged by other ships, that they fly in from certain angles – this gives us clues, but we’ll never have the full picture from this one ship.”

Zshann was still prepared to admit that the view ahead of him, which had been playing in real-time, was an impressive one nonetheless. The Surgical Strike had managed to get far enough into the action to come into contact with hundreds of ships, and it was clear to Zshann, who had previously undertaken a brief military career beforehand, that the battle had been strategically disastrous for both sides.

Both sides had, so far as he could tell, undertaken a strategy that almost perfectly anticipated what the other side would do, and the result was a deadlock that forced each side into desperation. With half an hour, he could see signs of tactics being thrown aside utterly, swept under a cosmic carpet as ships simply charged into the fray and opened fire. After a couple of hours, the original plans had fallen apart utterly, and the Surgical Strike and others were simply rushing around at random, firing at anything that was the enemy – he watched in particular as the Strike fired repeatedly at a ship that was already clearly critically damaged, flying as it was on an awkward, linear path and firing at no-one, debris trailing from it as it tumbled through the battle space.

“Well, the President’s story checks out,” the captain said to no-one in particular.

“It’s the folly of war with none of the bravery, virtue or wit,” one of the lab staff said.

The captain couldn’t argue much with that. He continued to watch as the Surgical Strike threaded itself upwards through a ridiculously close bunch of ships, levelled out and then looped round in a sort of half-hearted spiral, apropos of nothing, all the while managing to take out one ship when it should have clocked up at least three. Pure tragedy on so many levels.

6

“Captain, we’ve found that missing ship.”

Zshann could barely believe he was hearing those words, but he heard them, and as he reached the bridge, and witnessed the holographic image himself, he could hardly believe the sight of it, either. There in the centre, a dark, sinister presence, completely black and spherical, simulated jets of radiation streaming out of opposite ends, and an accretion disc in slow orbit around the middle. In among the gathered gas, dust and other assorted pieces was indeed the ship they had been seeking.

The captain moved into the hologram, wading out into the accretion disc and looking at the ship, small in comparison with the event horizon it was so close to, On the side on the artificially brightened ship he could see that it was the SFS Elimination Sought and Achieved.

“The time dilation must be… immense,” he said to no-one.

“They probably still think the war is on, unless they’re aware of it,” Piret agreed.

“Thousands of years and they all flash past like that.”

The captain continued to gaze at the ship and its apparently motionless appearance.

“It’s barely moving,” he observed, “they might well have fallen in already.”

“Routing the ansibles through the sensors suggests otherwise,” Miye said, and she pulled up a screen that demonstrated why. “There’s ample evidence to suggest that the ship is in very close but very fast orbit around the event horizon. Probably mere kilometres away at most and less than a tiny fraction of a per cent below lightspeed velocity. There’s no doubt intense levels of time dilation of both kinds.”

“Fair enough,” the captain said. He wasn’t prepared to argue with better-informed experts, even if he knew something of what he was talking about. “So they can’t get out?”

“Presumably the superlight drive is damaged,” Miye suggested, “or the time dilation is so intense that it’s been mere seconds on there. But I doubt it.”
The captain was still looking at the projection all the while, and noticing that the ship still hadn’t moved, so far as he could see. It moved like a tectonic plate over a planet’s surface; so imperceptibly that he doubted he would even know if it had made significant progress a year later.

“Shouldn’t the accretion disc provide drag? Are you sure they’re not slowly falling in anyway?”

“I can’t see any evidence that such a scenario would happen. The sublight engine would have systems to compensate.”

Of course they would, the captain thought. No Stoppan ship would have such systems, because of the complexity of the calculations, but the Shango would. Even when trapped they showed an edge over his people.

“And there’s no way they could get out? On their own?”

Miye hesitated. “Well…”

“Anything. I’m all ears.”

“It is possible that the black hole will die before they do. But at that point, the Shango, us, the galaxy might have collapsed into subatomic particles. There’d be nothing waiting for them.”

“What can we do?”

Miye seemed uncertain, and the rest of the bridge crew frowned at their screens. Finally, one of them volunteered a solution.

“We could donate our own power to push them into escape velocity. But it would take a lot of power, and we’d have to get it back, probably through stellar capture, which would mean a much longer route home.”

The captain nodded and slowly considered this.

“Fuck it. Gather data, and let’s head back.”

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