Of Questionable Contact

CHAPTER ONE:

Alan Hargreaves had woken up that morning in a particularly bad mood. Overtired from his previous shift, yet too restless to get any sleep, he had floated around his dormitory in a haze for about fifteen minutes before deciding to try to do something to get his mind off the feeling of fatigue.

Alan was the Chief Technical Specialist and the head of the maintenance department on board the ECSA Hephaestus, a heavily-armed combat spacecraft belonging to the European Commonwealth Space Agency. He had been working for the ECSA for three years, completing two year-long patrol tours on board the Hephaestus already. One of the tours had been a patrol around the space stations and industrial facilities around Mars, and the other had been a patrol around the ECSA outposts at Titan. Alan's technical prowess at previous missions had led him to be promoted to Chief Technical Specialist for this tour, which brought the Hephaestus and her crew to a year-long patrol in orbit around Neptune.

The Neptunian patrol was a universally reviled post throughout the entire astronaut corps of the ECSA, and every member of the Hephaestus' crew, even the Commander, despised it. The isolation felt from spending a year in such a hermetically-sealed environment was accentuated by the fact that the spacecraft was now several minutes away from any sort of communication with even the nearest human outpost, and made even worse by the fact that if a crisis did occur, it would take weeks to reach a safe space-station.

Any spacecraft set to patrol Neptune would soon have many of its crew members try to escape duty, either by medical exemptions or by a transfer by any other means. It was just Alan's luck that a number of members of the crew had succumbed to various illnesses - Alan cynically thought that a few of them may have been huffing the virologists' test samples at Titan - leaving the spacecraft short of staff.

The unpopularity of the post meant that the ECSA didn't even try particularly hard to replace the missing members of staff, leaving only eight of the intended twelve members to continue forth and complete the tour. Alan was left to question exactly why the ECSA would continue with a tour which caused such an obvious breakdown in morale.

As for Alan himself, he was now forced to do the work of two personnel, working fourteen hours per day to ensure, along with his colleague in the maintenance department, that the spacecraft was in proper working order. He had to contend with tedious reassembly of unreliable robotic components and various parts of the spacecraft's systems.

Physical conditions on board the Hephaestus didn't help matters either. There were corridors just about wide enough to allow two people to pass with their backs to the walls, low-lying ceilings with irregularly-placed and overhanging pipes and conduits, dormitories which were barely wider than the beds they housed, among other undesirable conditions. Clearly, working as an astronaut in the ECSA was not an appropriate job for a claustrophobe.

It was no wonder, Alan thought, that he was in a bad mood, and the pounding that was now coming from his door didn't help his mood either.

"Alan! Alan! Wake up, you lazy bastard!", came the impatient shout of one of Alan's colleagues from outside the door.

"Wait a minute!", Alan replied, with some consternation in his voice. Pushing himself off his bed, he wearily made his way around his bed and over to the door. He pulled it open to see a dishevelled figure standing at the other side of the corridor. It was his assistant in the maintenance department.

"Bloody hell, Peter," Alan replied, "You don't have to be so loud! You could wake the dead with that voice!" Alan paused for a second, before continuing, "Haven't you considered just knocking on the door politely, instead of bellowing and pounding like there's a bear after you?"

"Sorry, Alan," Peter replied, his face drooping with fatigue. "You looked destroyed when I saw you last. I wasn't sure if you'd wake up."

"With that tone?" Alan asked. "You'd have woken me from my grave! For the record, I was fairly wrecked, but then, I couldn't sleep properly. I've been awake for a couple of hours. But enough about me. How are you?"

"Absolutely shattered, mate. I doubt I'll have any trouble sleeping after that shift."

"Yeah, you certainly look it. Anything I should know? Any trouble?"

"Not much. Maintenance bot B18 is acting up, and I still can't sort out that missile tube. I think it's an EVA job."

"Bot B18 is always acting up," Alan replied derisively. "Anything else?"

"No, not really. Business as usual."

"Right, then, I'm off. See you later. Get a good sleep - I don't want you feeling like I do now."

"You don't have to tell me, Alan," Peter replied with a chuckle. As Peter walked off in the direction of his own dormitory, his uniform almost as creased as his face, Alan sighed and stepped out into the corridors. He muttered to himself, with a slight tinge of resentment, "Welcome to another day on board the Hephaestus."

He needed breakfast.

* * *
John Durwell, pilot and second-in-command on the Hephaestus, sat in front of a computer screen in his remote piloting station, manipulating an image on the screen with a neural headset. As he engaged with the thermal scan on screen, he heard footsteps in the corridor behind him. John turned to see the Commander standing in the doorway.

"Sitrep, please, John," the Commander requested as he stooped down to get through the doorway.

John turned back to the computer, changing the image's perspective before beginning to speak, using the computer image as a reference. "It looks mostly normal out there right now. We've got our helium-3 gatherer coming in right on schedule, normal US NSC activity around Uranus - that's two patrol spacecraft and the experimental one they're planning to send to Barnard's Star. All things normal at Titan, and transmissions coming in right on time as well."

As the Commander found a seat by another computer console, the pilot continued. "ECSA, US NSC and Eastern Alliance spacecraft all normal around Saturn and Jupiter. Now, there is one question that I've been waiting to be answered: What the hell is up with that big combat spacecraft coming in right up our arse?"

"Apparently," the Commander replied, "it's from the Eastern Alliance, Beijing-class, and according to reports from the station at Earth, it's on some sort of training exercise."

John snorted with derision. "So, what are they training them? Espionage or posturing?"

"Both, probably," the Commander replied candidly. "I don't think the observers at Earth considered it to be engaged in innocent action either. Or, at least, I sincerely hope they didn't."

"Too right, sir. The Eastern Alliance don't have any business out Neptune - no stations, no facilities, nothing."

"Indeed. Keep an eye on that spacecraft, and keep me informed."

"Will do, sir."

As the Commander left the room, John returned to the screen. Armed with the new knowledge of the identity of the spacecraft, he recalibrated the local thermal sensors to concentrate on the proximity. The spacecraft was completely out of place, as the Eastern Alliance had no economic reasons to be so close to Neptune, and John was intent on discovering their purpose.

* * *

Alan, now clean-shaven and considerably more refreshed than he was when he had been called for his shift, sat at the common-room table, eating a pre-packed meal from a cardboard box. In his more refreshed state, he forced himself to think of the positive aspects of the job, and to his surprise, he thought of them quickly.

For one thing, the job was rewarding, despite being difficult, tedious and exhausting. Passing the intense training course that the ECSA used to weed out undesirable candidates, ones which would feel especially uncomfortable in the isolated, close-packed conditions on board a spacecraft like the Hephaestus, had been a particular triumph of Alan's life, and because of the decisively unpopular reputation of the Neptunian patrol, he and his fellow crewmates would attain a reputation for tenaciousness, one that would serve them well.

The Hephaestus, as well, was a surprisingly acceptable environment for Alan once he had grown accustomed to it. It wasn't luxurious, by any means, with its industrial-standard steel walls and rubber floors, but one didn't join a military expecting daily back massages and caviar. Despite occasional arguments, he still felt a sense of camaraderie with his fellow colleagues, which was important in the tight, industrial conditions. When you lacked other luxuries, Alan thought, you needed colleagues which wouldn't irritate or anger you.

Alan was halfway through his meal and was about to pull out his electronic tablet to read a book when he noticed somebody coming through the doorway. As Alan looked up, he greeted his crewmate with a nod of the head. "Morning, Claude. Feeling well?"

"Good day, Alan," Claude replied with a faint French accent. "I am, thank you. And you?"

"Tired but serviceable," Alan replied. "Once more into the breach, and all that."

"Same as always, then?" Claude asked as he went to the refrigerator. Alan continued eating while his colleague prepared his meal. As Claude returned to the table with meal in hand, he looked over at Alan's food, asking, "That's not what I think it is, is it?"

As Alan tipped up his box, revealing a mixture of strings of white protein and slimy mushroom pieces, Claude turned away in revulsion. "Mushrooms and protein paste again? And for breakfast as well? How can you eat that disgusting concoction?"

"Simple," Alan replied laconically. "I take the fork, lift it to my mouth, chew and swallow."

"But it's so bland, Alan! They grow that material in industrial batches! That's the sort of food that they feed to prisoners!"

"To be honest, Claude," Alan replied, his face half-filled with food, "I don't really care. I wouldn't even appreciate good food right now. I'm not much of a gourmand."

"As I can clearly see," Claude replied as he opened the box containing his own meal. Having finished, Alan stood up, walked towards the door and said, "Well, I'm off now. I've got work to do...", before adding in a hopeful voice, "unless you want to switch jobs for the day."

"No thanks, Alan. I'm a mathematician, not a... spanner jockey!"

Alan pretended to be shocked, before replying, "Spanner jockey? That hurts, Claude. I believe you'll find the correct term is 'aerospace engineer'. I've done a fair bit of mathematics in my time as well."

Not waiting for a reply from Claude, Alan quickly made his exit from the room, heading towards the maintenance area.

* * *
The Commander, a tall man at one-hundred and ninety centimetres, found navigating the corridors to be an especially trying task. He spent most of his time leaning over, attempting to avoid the assorted pipes and conduits which hung down from the ceilings, which were already low enough to be a nuisance. It was one of the characteristics of the spacecraft which the designers would call "spatial efficiency", and the Commander, less generously, would call a design flaw.

The Commander was returning to his office after conversing with his second-in-command, and he was considering the situation regarding the nearby Eastern Alliance spacecraft. It didn't belong anywhere near the Hephaestus - the Eastern Alliance had no industrial facilities any further from Earth than the moons of Saturn. It was questionable what the purpose of this anomalous Eastern Alliance spacecraft was, but whatever it turned out to be, it was a question that the Commander intended to answer.

* * *
Alan had begun work in the maintenance area inside the inner centrifugal ring. It perplexed Alan why the designers of the spacecraft would place the maintenance area at that point, but he was inclined to agree with the Commander in proposing that it was yet another of those characteristic elements of the Hephaestus which was sold as "spatial efficiency" by those who weren't encased into it for a year at a time.

Alan was effectively working at half of Earth's gravity, which felt disconcerting, but which he wouldn't have complained about if it didn't make him feel like a superhuman while also leading to the physiological degradation of his body.

He had been working for almost two-and-a-half hours, resoldering broken connections on damaged circuit boards and setting robots to their tasks. He had a robot with a worn ambulatory system and another with a smashed optical lens set to repair, but he required components. He briefly recalled a conversation on the way to the common room, and resolved to pick up a replacement hydroponic bed. Unfortunately, the beds were bulky and awkward, and Alan prepared himself for a challenge getting the device through the corridors.

* * *
It had been more than two hours since the Commander had spoken to John, and in that time, John had been watching the monitors intently. The screen had been divided into two halves, one portraying a long-range scan coming from Titan at a frequency of half-an-hour, and the other showing a scan from the on-board sensors.

John watched as the two-minute intervals between the scans gave a time-lapse impression of the intruding spacecraft's motion. "Why the hell is it here?", John asked himself. It was a question he had been asking almost as much as the Commander. Only the ECSA had any significant resources tied up in Neptune, with a large number of helium-3 gathering stations embedded in the atmosphere, collecting reactor fuel for the European Commonwealth on Earth, in its space colonies

and its assorted spacecraft alike.

Even the United States National Space Command didn't have much more than a few automated sensor stations in orbit and a few helium-3 stations invested in Neptune, and the Eastern Alliance had nothing. The presence of one of their spacecraft was anything but an innocent gesture. John had reasoned that it was likely an attempt at posturing, an attempt to prove the military might of the Eastern Alliance to the leaders of the United States and the European Commonwealth.

John had his attention focused on the thermal scan from Titan when a local thermal scan came in directly on schedule. He wasted no time in analysing the visualisation on the screen, manipulating the image to look from different angles. Almost immediately, he noticed an anomaly, a new heat signature which didn't belong. As he analysed it, calling up specific thermal details, he racked his brains trying to identify the anomalous object. Suddenly, he came to a conclusion, and he sat aghast for a few seconds.

It was a missile.

John jumped off his seat, shouting down his headset, "Sir, we're under attack! Missile coming in fast!"