2949-03-16 – Tales from the Service: Arowana’s First Contact

The pair of blips representing the unknown ships seemed to crawl across the display, but Walker Gorman knew the vastness of even interplanetary space was deceiving. For his cutter Arowana to gain as much delta-vee as they had in the hour since they’d come into spatial-stress detector range, it would have had to run its gravitic drive above maximum for more than six hours – and from the steadiness of their drive signature, the vessels were cruising at twenty or thirty percent of their maximum drive power at the most. 

The potential speed of the vessels had frightened Walker when they’d first appeared, but that reaction had long since faded, to be replaced by simple curiosity. Why would any sapient, rational or otherwise, construct a vessel with such performance characteristics, when distances wider than a single star’s orbital plane could be covered by a star drive hop that no light-speed-limited gravitic drive could outpace? Nobody was in enough of a hurry to cross a single star system that they accepted the consequences of major time dilation, except apparently these three ships. He might have taken one such vessel for a research ship or high-speed courier despite their size, but two of the same configuration suggested serial production. Most likely, these were warships launched from the same shipyard. 

A few kilometers off the starboard bow, a few of Walker’s crewmen sent back regular updates about the progress of their salvage mission. He let the other bridge crew monitor that situation, preferring to tackle the puzzle of the unknown ships himself in silence. Someone would shout his name if the volunteer scrappers ran into any real trouble. 

On several occasions, Walker had approached a conclusion about the trio of ships, but had shied away from it each time. If he accepted that conclusion, it necessitated a course of action that, should he be wrong, would doom his Arowana and its entire crew – and robbed the Lost Squadrons of any salvaged parts and resources that might be recovered from the dead colony world below and its shattered space dock. 

Third Lieutenant Kuijpers was evidently as distracted by the blips on the plot as his skipper. “That’s way too much engine for travel.” 

This being one of the axioms of the conclusion Walker had been dancing with, he turned in his chair to face the young sensor officer. “What else do you use gravitic drives for, Mr. Kuijpers?” 

“Acrobatics, maybe.” Kuijpers dismissed this almost as soon as he’d said it, realizing as Walker already had that no A-grav system could keep such a ship from pulping its crew or flying apart at the seams under a full-power gravitic drive reversal at that scale. “I don’t know. Matching velocities, overcompensating for a really tiny-” 

“Matching velocities, exactly.” Walker pointed to the plot. “There’s nothing here going fast enough to justify that. Find me something in Sagittarius that is.” 

Kuijpers blinked slowly, likely thinking that Walker was handing him make-work to keep his mind off the peril swiftly nearing closest approach. Still, he bent over his console and began a navcomputer search. 

Unfortunately, the boy had come up with precisely the same reason Walker himself had, and this only put another feather in the cap of the conclusion he was avoiding. The only reason to need serially produced ships which could easily attain relativistic velocities in a short period of time was that they needed to visit a destination that was in itself moving at relativistic velocities relative to other destinations. 

Every spacer knew that a star drive moved the ship in space, but the velocity with which it arrived was essentially the velocity with which it initiated the jump, in relation not to the positions of the stars, but the cosmic fabric itself. Each star system moved at slightly different speed and direction around the galactic core, so the first step in reaching any destination was burning the gravitic drive until the ship’s velocity and the destination star system’s velocity were nearly matched, less a component that propelled the ship in-system toward its intended port of call. Only then could the ship begin accelerating in-system at cruise power. 

Evidently, the search didn’t take Kuijpers very long. With a startled expression, he looked up. “The Tumbleweed, Skipper.” 

The what?” Walker didn’t recognize the name. 

“It’s an open cluster, redshifted to all Hells.” A false-color image of a group of perhaps a dozen stars appeared on one of Walker’s secondary displays. “It's moving almost straight toward the galactic center, and going so fast that must experience time dilation.” 

This was exactly the sort of thing Walker needed to make his decision. The Tumbleweed, according to the data on the screen, was near the far edge of the official boundaries of the Sagittarius Frontier, though outside the densest part of the Galactic Disk, where its pell-mell course was unlikely to result in close encounters with any of the local stars. “Something must have kicked it out of its orbit.” 

“Datasphere says it might have been exogalactic.” 

The word, mind-boggling in scale as it was, made everyone on the bridge look up. Most of them had probably been half-listening, and as that word produced an uncomfortable silence, Walker could see bits and pieces of his conclusion falling into place in each pair of eyes.  

Walker stood up. He knew what he needed to do, and he also knew nobody on the command deck would like it. “That would have been what, a hundred thousand years ago? Longer?” 

“Four hundred thousand. Skipper, do you really think those Nate ships visited the Tumbleweed?” 

“Not precisely, Mr. Kuijpers.” Walker turned back to his chair to lean over the console and tap into the ship’s intercom. “All hands, stand down from Condition Two. Re-engage running lights and IFF transponder.” He then gestured to the other equally-young officer at the comms station. “Prepare the standard first-contact protocols, Ms. Wojda.” 

“What?” Wojda shook her head. “First contact? But these are-” 

“Not Nates.” Walker hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. It would have been safer to avoid the ships altogether, but if the two ships weren’t Incarnation ships, there were only two explanations for the identical drive technology. From what he’d seen of Incarnation foreign policy, he doubted the mad Ladeonist chipheads were the type to negotiate licensed manufacturing. “I think we’re about to meet the people Nate stole his tech from.” 

Mr. Gorman guessed correctly, and this explains why the Reachers referred to Incarnation warships as Grand Journey ships crewed by humans. Though the details of the actual event remain unclear, it seems that the marvelous drive systems of the Tyrant-type heavy cruisers are scaled-down powerplants stolen from this odd faction, which seems to send its ships out from the Tumbleweed stellar cluster to wander and explore Sagittarius much as the Reachers are known to wander the Orion Arm. 

That being said, the Reachers’ stated prior experience with these sapients suggest they are capable of crossing the Gap, and there is still no evidence of a Reacher home world, even a mobile one like the Tumbleweed cluster. The relationship between these two apparently nomadic cultures, though of certain interest to this audience, is still not known. 

Unfortunately, the actual details of the first contact event with these Grand Journey vessels has been placed under Naval Intelligence lock and key. Some time in the future, perhaps, I will be allowed to share the rest of this story with this audience.