Faster-Than-Light Prelude

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The pale lights reflecting off of Neptune's surface basked the corridors of Orbital Area-11 in an alien hue. N.J. Watts flung herself through the glow as she traversed the corrugated metal passageway, one of many running through and alongside the station. In her zero-g drift she turned her head to face the bullet/micrometeorite/thaumaturgy-proof panes running down it, one of few accommodations provided by the site designers for the claustrophobic Extrasolar Activities Division members.

She spotted a silver spec. Autonomous Exploration Satellite Ehlers-001 was now a glimmer in the orbital void of Neptune, nearly blending in with backdrop of the planet's surface. Unless she had mistaken a stray asteroid for the probe.

"All personnel in Project Aster Jumper report to Command Center 2. I repeat, all personnel in Project Aster Jumper report to Command Center 2."

Already on it.

N.J. grabbed a handlebar and abruptly slowed before entering an elevator at the passage end. She clicked safety straps around her Foundation-issued orbital coverall and tapped a button to descend. The doors clunked shut, electrical motors whirred, metal rattled. The elevator began moving away from the station's axis to the bottom of its second spinning habitation ring. Gravity crept in. Every inch the elevator lowered she felt false gravity, generated by the spinning ring's centrifugal force, press down like lead bricks, the straps pushing into her body more and more.

After a minute the elevator lurched to a halt. She hastily threw the straps off and bounded from the opened entrance, speedwalking down a steel hallway that looped around the ring, ever-curving upwards. White-uniformed technicians rushed past her, frantically asking about potential X-ray receptor errors on Ehlers-001. An eight-limbed cleaning bot scooted past. She flashed her keycard in front of a scanner and Command Center 2's door shot open.

"…fusion reactor checks are so far looking good, oh, and a good California morning to you, Enjay." Hyeon 3Mun looked up from his holographic display monitor and waved a cybernetic hand.

"You still remember what places on Earth are having their mornings?"

"No, but the internet sure does."

Rows of computer terminals filled Command Center 2, buzzing with neon glows and the activity of a dozen researchers perched over feeds of diagnostic data. One of the four screens on the front wall showed a view of Ehlers-001. The probe's main chassis was a cylinder with arrays of sensors jutting out all over, function over form, with the toroid of a fusion reactor connected to its relative underside. Attached to the far end was a carbon nanotube-reinforced metal octahedron that was large enough to make the main chassis seem like a parasite. The Bifrost Superluminal Engine.

"Stunning, isn't it?"

She averted her eyes, busy inspecting the glimmering square lattices of the nanotubes, and turned to Hyeon. "No views quite like this one," she said, still more focused on the screen. The probe drifted over the Neptunian backdrop — a vessel at sea.

"So much better than anything at the Luna-Korea shipyards. Is it crazy knowing your engine's actually out there?"

"Would be if I still remembered designing it." The cocktail of amnestics and memetic blockers jabbed into her brain. The Foundation didn't trust anyone on the Bifrost design team with knowing what they had actually built, with exceptions for people who must've been promoted that she had also forgotten. A few more jabs and she figured it was best not try the patience of her nanotech implants by thinking about it.

The last of Project Aster Jumper's researchers spilled in through the door. N.J. snapped back to reality. Launch would happen any moment now.

She looked at Hyeon and found him distracted with floating wireframe visuals of the probe's quantum computer circuitry, likely tuned out of the conversation he'd tried starting. Not bothering to get his attention, N.J. slid over to her desk. Another flick of the keycard and it awoke from its slumber. The monitor lit up to extend luminescent text boxes into the air, relaying information sent by the probe's AIAD unit on the status of the Bifrost Engine.

All systems nominal.

She pressed a button to send the GO signal. A green light flashed above her monitor. Dozens more appeared as the other researchers confirmed all was well. A timer appeared on one of the screens in the front, every word read out by the simulated voice of an announcer.

T-minus 60.

T-minus 59.

T-minus 58…

The seconds ticked by like hours. N.J. nervously fidgeted with the pouches on her coveralls, clicking their buttons together and apart in a monotone rhythm. The Foundation was no newcomer to faster-than-light travel, having used probes outfitted with Lang Distortion Drives to explore neighboring stars since the 2020s, but they always went wrong. The thaumaturgic rituals they relied on were too prone to failure, once sending an autonomous station far out of the galaxy into an intergalactic void. At best they could only bring you a few light-years away in a year.

T-minus 20.

T-minus 19.

T-minus 18…

It was too costly to keep using.

She glanced at Hyeon. He wiped sweat from under his brown hair. After so much effort they couldn't afford a problem. Ehlers-001 had to work.

T-minus 10.

T-minus 9.

T-minus 8…

She took a deep breath.

This mission had to work, so she could figure out why the Division needed it to later.

It had to work.

T-minus 3.

T-minus 2.

T-minus 1.

T-minus 0.

Bifrost Engine start.

On the screens, light twisted. The space around Ehlers-001 arced into impossible circles, light passing through the wavering spacetime and presenting magnified views of the Neptunian backdrop and the probe, like it was refracting through the water of a tumultuous sea. The circles bent to form a sphere around the probe, creating a pocket of spacetime only the probe would inhabit. Ehlers-001 was now out of sight, wholly replaced by the magnified views. In nanoseconds, the views vanished too. Monitors announced the detection of high-energy gravitational waves, but there was no trace of the probe left.

Reserved cheers. Murmurs. Silence. A new timer appeared, one that would finish its countdown in seven days. Seven days until they would know if they had succeeded.

Ehlers-001 was surrounded by darkness as its bubble of spacetime carried it through the cosmos. Aside from the probe all that was present was heat it gave off, gradually dispersing into the matterless void. Despite the isolation from the universe, flickers of far off things emerged in the distance. Vague billowing masses that seemed like creatures yet weren't, ethereal glows forming shapes wrong enough to break a human mind, gray spirals — scraping past something beyond reality.

An alert rang out deep in the supercooled quantum computers. Hyperborean.aic — digitized pilot of the probe — had to take action. The Bifrost Engine vibrated the vessel as it began to strip away layers of the bubble, reverting it back into regular spacetime. The impossible imagery vanished in an instant as light seeped in from outside. Slowly but surely the universe came into view.

Ehlers-001 was in the interstellar expanse of a star cluster, 27,000 light-years from Sol. In the visual light range the sky seemed lighter than normal, the stars more tightly packed together than in Earth's skies. Switching to the full EM radiation spectrum brought a cavalcade of data. Thousands of radiowaves, X-rays, and gamma rays sped from star systems, bundles of data in tow. Each hit the probe's communications dishes and was decoded by Hyperborean, unveiling countless messages of alien civilizations. Warnings, diagrams of weapons, seven and four-fold fractals. Most were untranslated but the origins were clear.

Within a subsection of the probe, a vial of blood dripped droplets into a chamber filled with intricately carved occult symbols. Mechanical arms spun and flailed about, moving ritual artifacts through and around the fluids in well-orchestrated patterns, accompanied by a loudspeaker's recording of a thaumaturge's chants. Existence bent. A metal panel folded inwards to form a Way to another universe. Transmitters beamed status reports into the purple skies past the Way, sent to any Foundation outposts built there, and deactivated soon after. Aetheric energy quickly bled out, leaving the metal panel to reform while destroying the Way.

The status reports were short, miniscule in comparison to the reports compiled by past probes venturing to extrasolar shores. Yet they carried all the weight in the world.

N.J. forced her head off her pillow. She gently flicked a switch above the bedside table and watched the holographic display of a forested area by her bed melt away. It churned and solidified into a view of a Europan ice mine, the mass of Jupiter looming over its metal domes; a live feed lagging by the 207 minutes light took to reach her. A second hologram emerged above the sight of a spherical cargo drone descending to a landing pad. A message.

She rubbed her eyes, then lifted up to read it.

Got a signal from Ehlers-001. It's made it to Terzan 2 right on time. Not an error in sight. Division Head wants us to get this show on the road (still won't let us know why we're in this star cluster of all places) so get your butt down to ComCent 2.

Sent by Hyeon 3Mun, 1 Hr 30 Min ago

A new era of interstellar exploration was beginning.

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