"Where exactly are we again?"
Captain Laperouse of ARS Astrolabe sighed at the oft-repeated question from his young deck officer. Of course, the ignorance wasn't his fault; this was Lieutenant Yoder's first deployment as a Pioneer, and as an Omniss refugee from the Raven Alliance, he was still relatively new to space travel and high technology. Though to his credit, the Captain silently noted, the practical Omniss had been learning fast.
"Good question," the Captain replied with only a slight hint of the sarcasm he felt. He gestured to the navigation display as the ship burned along at 1 G. "You know we call this region the Eastern Dark." He pointed to the western edge of the map. "Terra is several hundred light years that way. That tagged system there in the middle left is Jardin, and the one southwest of that is Calais, the closest systems in the Astral Republic. Home is about three long jumps away."
"Is that all? It seems like we've been out here a lot longer than that." The Lieutenant paused as an idea hit him. "But then, we've not been going in a straight line; just system hopping."
The Captain smiled. "Time passes differently on deployment, and especially so out here." He pointed to the eastern side of the map; it was frighteningly empty, with only a few named landmark systems and no major worlds. "Very few humans have ever set foot out here east of the Republic, so far as we know. Missions like ours come out here to check up on previous finds, and add to our knowledge as we roam outward."
"What previous finds?"
The Captain tsked. "You have not done your mission homework, have you?"
The young Omniss looked ashamed. "No sir. Not all of it."
The Captain sighed. "Very well." He began pointing out tagged systems. "These green systems are habitable. We have done pre-colonial surveys there, preparing for expansion of the Republic."
"What about that one with the red circle? Romero? It's tagged as habitable..."
"Technically habitable," the Captain interrupted, "but off limits due to biohazard. Full quarantine, deadly force authorized. Our navy uses it as a bombardment range. Partly to get some use from it, partly in hope that someday, the biohazard will be eliminated."
"Oh." The Lieutenant's attitude darkened. "Now I remember. The zombie world."
"Some call it that. We will make a system hop there later; recharge and data recording only, no landing. You will get the full story then."
The Lieutenant nodded. "The white circled worlds have active missions, correct?"
"Yes. And you might note the yellow circles for controlled access." The Captain pointed out one system. "Ys is, or was, a pre-Republic colony from Terra that died out before the Reunification War. The ruins date at least to the early Age of War, perhaps even the First Exodus. The Clan Homeworlds are farther from Terra, but Ys definitely pushes the boundaries of humanity in this direction."
"Ys is an odd name, isn't it?"
"We do not know the original name; Ys is the name we gave it. A Breton name from an ancient Terran legend about a lost city, so I am told. It seems fitting. But tell me," the Captain said as he pulled something from a pocket, "what do you think of this?"
The Lieutenant slowly turned over the small object which the Captain had carefully handed him. It was heavy and shiny, almost golden in color, and shaped like an eight-sided die. The edges were precisely cut and rounded and the faces smooth, save for the different rune-like symbols etched crisply into each face.
"Pyrite?" The Lieutenant said as he held it up to the light. "It looks like someone polished an iron pyrite crystal, but I don't recognize the symbols."
"Correct on the geology. As for the symbols, nobody knows." The Lieutenant looked hard at the Captain as he took the object back and continued. "I found that two missions ago on another world we will be visiting. One of many odd things there. But first," he pointed to the main screen as he climbed into his command chair, "we have something odd here." He sounded the maneuvering alarm and keyed the announcing circuit. "All hands, this is the Captain. Taking station, stand by for zero G."
The Lieutenant jumped into his own chair and buckled in along with the bridge crew. "Taking station?" He looked at the emptiness on the view screen, where just a few distant stars twinkled. "Taking station on what?"
"The Eye," answered the helmsman. "Standard safe point, Captain?"
"The Eye?" Lieutenant Yoder repeated. "What is..."
The ship slowed and pivoted, and with the change in position, the closest star on screen suddenly smeared into a lopsided puddle of light, fading from blue on one side to red on the other.
"Oh my God."
It was a gravity lens, the Lieutenant realized. Light shifted by the Doppler effect and distorted by massive gravity. A common sight in interstellar astronomy, except that it was RIGHT THERE, relatively speaking, at a distance measured in AU's instead of light years. A swirl of rainbow fire around...NOTHING. A dark pupil in a glowing eye that seemed to draw his gaze into it, even at this distance.
"A black hole!" The Lieutenant exclaimed.
"Correct," the Captain said calmly. "Only eight solar masses, a relative baby. Harmless at this calculated safe point; we will jump from here shortly. The Eye is inactive now, since there is nothing left nearby to feed it. But we still keep our distance and stay clear of the poles to avoid jets." The Captain smiled. "We stop here occasionally to collect scientific data, which has proven useful in gravity and jump related research. We Pioneers are among the very few humans to have observed a black hole directly."
"How did you find it?"
"Serendipity. Today's stars are not the first generation of the Widow's Tears, so it seemed reasonable to watch for remnants of their ancestors. Eventually, we found the Eye. Since it is inactive and isolated, it is practically invisible; we found it by catching it lensing a star, as you see it now. Most likely, the Eye was born as a massive star in the Widow's Veil, whose death then played a role in the birth of the stars we inhabit today."
The Captain grinned. "We are just getting started, Lieutenant." He looked first at the science officer busily recording data, and then to the helmsman. "Prepare the ship for a jump to Zeno."
The Lieutenant perked and looked away from the Eye to the Captain. "Zeno?"
The Captain's grin didn't fade. "The system where I found this," he said as he held up the carved pyrite. "Welcome to the Eastern Dark, Lieutenant. Where we Pioneers live up to our name."
Be careful what you wish for. I might let you have it.
Last edited by Shades of Grey on Tue Oct 18, 2016 6:47 am, edited 3 times in total.