I never thought I’d write these words. But if I didn’t know him better, I’d say Mal was… scared. And in Mal terms, “scared” usually means weapons deployed and pointing at the source of his mild discomfort. But this was different. The unmistakable sound of fear in his voice, even over the rough subspace coms channel, was undeniable.
I have been out in the California Sector following up a lead on the possible location of an unknown artifact. I have scanned huge chunks of the nebula itself and many surrounding systems, but so far… no dice. I did, however, manage to track down the coordinates of the lead but it turned out to be ancient artifacts. I left them floating next to the star I found them orbiting. Not worth the hassle and not what I’m looking for.
After about 8 hours of continued searching I received an emergency communication from Mal stating he was on route and for me to hold on till he got here. I was a little puzzled by this because as far as I was aware nobody else knew I was out here. He was about 2 jumps from New Dawn Station in Ceos and wanted to know my exact coordinates. It was then I registered the fear in his voice.
Ancient Artifacts found orbiting a G type star in the California Sector.
I plotted a course for New Dawn Station and engaged the Hyperdrive. From my current location it would take me about 40 minutes. I sent Mal a short message confirming I was en route and to get me a cold one ready.
After docking up I left Biaju with the Carl Sagan and headed on down to the amenities area and the local star port bar where I found Mal agitated and worried.
“What’s up buddy?” I inquired. My first clue was when, without saying a word Mal passed me a beer. A Hobgoblin. His favourite. He doesn’t give these up lightly.
“Pepper told me you where out here.” he said, staring me straight in the eye and taking a big chug from his bottle.
“What else did she tell you?”
“Enough to get you gallivanting half way across populated space to come, what.. rescue me? Why are you here Mal?” Mal’s face became taught and focused, his eyes narrowing. “You’re looking for one of them unknown artifacts.” his eyes betraying something you don’t often see in Malcolm Washburne. Fear.
“What’s got you so spooked old friend?” I asked.
“Two weeks ago I ran into an unidentified signal source in… I forget which system, but about 30 LY from Alioth. Anyway, I drop in and find a Hauler adrift. No shields. Hull down to 12%. Drives offline. FSD inoperable.
I check the scope… nothing. If there’s anybody else there, they’re rigged for silent running. I wait a few minutes then the Hauler hails me. His transmission is garbled and I can hardly make out what he’s saying. Just the odd word. Artifact. Corrosive. Life support. Strange noises. Unknown. And help!. I heard that loud and clear.
So I get in closer and offer assistance. Nothing. Coms is silent. I hail again stating I was standing by to offer assistance. Still nothing. Then the coms comes alive “It’s out! There out… get out of…..” then screaming.
3 seconds later the fusion drive goes, knocking Thunder Child sideways and a ring off her shields. Now I was close. Ish. About 1500m. There is no way an exploding Hauler’s fusion drive can cause that amount of shield damage to a Python.”
File number HSX28359-4: Footage of an Unknown Artifact.
“Woah. I doubt even Texas would cause that much damage if she went up, even from about 200m!” I said.
“Right! So whatever was on that ship was highly corrosive and went up when the fusion reactor did. And I think it was one of those unknown artifacts Pepper has got you looking for. I mean, he said something about artifacts and corrosive. And that’s not all!”
“Go on.” I gestured, now more than a little concerned. Not just because something had got Mal spooked. But because finding one of these things was my current mission.
Mal took a long breath, then continued. “Just before jumping out and continuing on to Alioth, I replayed the audio files from just before the explosion. In the background you can hear something. Something not human.”
“What do you mean not human?”. I was now more than a little concerned and ordered a large Lavian Brandy from the bar tender.
“You tell me. I brought a copy of the file, along with something else. I got a picture of it!”
“How did you manage that?” I asked, taking a large swig of brandy.
“Well, you know I have not always played by the rules Darius. And that I may have at some time, fractured an occasional law.”
“When you were in the military. Yeah, I remember, you worked for the intelligence and IT corps.”. Admittedly this seemed to be a little hard to comprehend. Mal and intelligence in the same sentence. But what not many people know about Mal, is he is extremely good with hardware. Be it a flight system, a docking computer or a hyper space control module, he actually really knows his stuff.
‘Exactly. Anyway, I located the Hauler’s black box in among the wreckage. It was pretty mangled in the blast but was still more or less functioning, Anyway, I managed to hack it via a low level radio link and download a few files. An old military trick we used to hack into a ship’s manifest computer. I think you should take a look at them.” Mal handed me the small portable coms pad then gestured I follow him. “Just not here eh. Somewhere quiet. Meet me on the Thunder Child. She’s on pad 18.”
“No problem. See you 15 minutes.” – and with that we both paid our tabs, and left.
Safely aboard the Thunder Child Mal played me the audio from the Hauler’s black box, and showed me a grainy image taken from the stricken vessel’s flight log computer.
“It’s not very good quality I’m afraid, most of the files were damaged in the blast, but I did manage to retrieve this.”. Mal handed me the coms pad that showed the object, as recorded by the Hauler’s on board flight computer, presumably just before it was scooped up.
“What do you make of it?” Mal asked, rubbing his forehead , trying desperately not to look concerned.
“Well, it certainly isn’t anything I’ve ever come across before. And it certainly doesn’t look man made. What do you think?”
“I think we are about to see the return of some old friends Darius.” I paused for a moment, taking in what Mal had just said.
“No Mal. It can’t be. We destroyed them.” Mal was now visibly sweating. Mal doesn’t sweat. Mal is, at all times, as cool a cucumber. The only thing I have ever seen get Malcolm Washburne even slightly ruffled…