The impact came suddenly and unexpectedly, ripping through the Masi'shen ship defenses before the collective consciousness could sense alarm or mount counter-measures. The entire central section of the ship's modules were torn loose from its spine and spun away, hurling their precious aquaculture contents in great arcing gouts.
The shock wave pulsed down the central core of the ship's control and communications trunk, rebounding in a massive resonant spike. The ship's intergalactic communicator, a crystalline focus lens feeding a dished array, shattered. The primary intelligencer and the array it controlled sat blinded, helpless, its communications focus destroyed and its neural trunk cut. Auxiliary intelligencers in the forward bridge section and the aft propulsion sections kicked into emergency control mode, giving the crew time to restore stability and begin damage control assessment.
The news was grim. Not fatal, in the short term, but their voyage must end. They must land and prepare for long-term survival in some sanctuary with resources where they could remain hidden and wait for rescue. This was an explorer ship on the edge of an obscure galaxy, charting star systems in an unknown corner of the universe.
They had no way to send a distress message. No other Masi'shen ship was in this quadrant. They were alone and would remain alone for a long, long time. There was little time for grieving. Nearly one-third of their crew, the leaders and technicians tending the precious aquaculture and habitat sections of the great ship, had been swept away into the void. They must find sanctuary. Grief for their lost shipmates was a luxury they could indulge later, if they survived.
He was a tall, raw-boned veteran with geek glasses perched on his sunburned nose. Michael Hawthorne, geologist and geophysicist, was not pleased. He was pissed, highly pissed. He was enjoying a solitary vacation at his remote cabin in an isolated mountain valley, spending his days on cross-country skis and his evenings in front of the fireplace where he penned reports into journals he'd not had time to keep current.
He enjoyed his vacation until a helicopter landed on the frozen pond near the cabin and two agency officers impatiently stomped snow off their boots on the front porch of his cabin. He'd been alerted to their arrival by the swiveling searchlight on the chopper flooding through his cabin windows, several minutes before it touched down.
He got orders to pack one bag and get aboard the helicopter immediately. His vacation was cancelled. No reason was given.
This was the price he paid for his lucrative consulting work for the agency. It paid well, and it came infrequently enough that it didn't interfere with his preferred life as a geophysical consultant for major mineral and resource extraction corporations. He was also a Fellow of his alma mater and served in several advisory and steering positions. Between that and several investments, Michael had achieved a certain financial independence. He enjoyed the rare luxury of choosing his commitments.
Except for the agency. They would not be denied. When they beckoned, he complied. Michael had few fears, but he was not a foolish man. He did not go around kicking sleeping bears in their caves, and he did not provoke the agency to test their response. Nobody with any sense would anger an agency whose existence was denied, whose structure was unknown, whose funding sources were never seen, even by congressional oversight committees, and whose long reach within and without the country was never questioned. When they called, he answered. The few times prior had been harrowing but extremely lucrative. He also suspected that in some covert way, he was also serving his country.
Within hours he was seated at a conference table, reviewing satellite data of a remote antarctic region. Although 'remote' and 'antarctic' might seem synonymous, he had to admit that Marie Byrd Land on the continent's western quadrant was remote even for that desolate part of the world. Satellite gravity pattern sensors and deep-sensing radar showed something massive, buried deep under the ice, uncharacteristic of anything known. There was not enough detail to determine its nature or compare it with known anomalies but even so, there was enough 'not right' about it to raise questions. Most disturbing to the agency was the shape of the anomaly. It was massive, miles wide and many more miles long. It covered a rectangular area, bulbous at each end with a long, skinny section between. Computer analysis flagged it as "unknown, unnatural." That was the puzzle, and a huge red flag. The agency detested puzzles without answers; it was absolutely paranoid about 'unnatural' alerts, even in the remote antarctic.
They gave Michael the rest of the day to put his personal affairs in order and submit a list of clothing sizes and personal items. He would ride an early morning flight to McMurdo Sound base, and from there to wherever the investigation would take him. They told to prepare his equipment list. It would be procured and sent on a following flight if not already available at McMurdo.
Damn, he thought to himself. They're pretty fired up, given that these are preliminary sensor data. Never figured they'd get so excited about a few square miles of ice and rock in an overlooked wasteland. But it is curious. Something two miles wide and sixteen miles long appears to be buried on Siple Island, just clear of the volcano.
June Christie was cold, wet, tired, and confused. She'd been out on the research vessel for a week, running hydrophone sweeps and analyzing the tape returns. She'd had little sleep for the last eighteen hours and she knew that another four hours would go by before there was any hope of getting to her bunk.
"Run those east side sweep tapes again, the ones from 1800 hours," she asked her assistant. "Mix in the sonogram images and overlay the audio tones. I want to follow the image movements with the pod's calls."
She closed her eyes, focused on the high-pitched chirps and squeaks of her pod. She recognized the call of the dominant female, her calf, and heard the responses from her pod mates. The pod had been hunting, running down penguins that were diving from the pack ice. The penguins were desperate to feed after an especially vicious storm held them land bound for a week. There would be a frenzy of hunting and killing by orca and leopard seals, chasing down their weakened prey. But this time, in one corner of the bay, something was different.
She opened her eyes to study the faint sonogram echo traces recorded from sonar sweeps replaying on her monitor. The traces were synched with the pod calls.
"There, damn it! They did it! They divided, and diverted. The orca, they had that group of penguins dead to rights, just off the ice bank, and they just divided, swept past on either side, and ignored them! Unbelievable!"
June Christie studied orca pods since earning her Ph.D. in marine biology ten years earlier from the University of Washington. She loved orca. "Killer whales," they were called for many years until a more forgiving and understanding environmental community studied the orca role in the predator chain of the ocean ecosystem. Like wolves on land, the orca were an essential part of the system. Salmon and seals and penguins and sometimes a gray whale calf were parts of their prey base. Each orca pod differed in their hunting style, their prey preferences, and their chosen range. The Antarctic pods were big-animal eaters: they sought seals and penguins. Now she couldn't believe their behavior. And something else bothered her: she'd never heard these particular 'phrases' from this pod before. There was something new, with a different meaning.
What the hell is going on here? Why would an orca pod deliberately split and go around a group of penguins? And why would they be telling each other about it, in advance? Damn it, it's like they were giving them safe passage!
She dared not put her thoughts into writing. And in good conscience, she didn't have anything conclusive to justify such a radical suggestion, not yet. But she did want to follow up on this. Oh, yes, this was just too different, too puzzling, to let go.
"Roy, let's plan on another three-day sweep of this area as soon as we can, preferably when we can expect another big penguin event in this bay. I want to get more tapes, many more tapes. And let's plan on working here, around this east side of the bay. Okay?"
"Sure, June. I'll put together the schedule. But you'd better talk to the chief. He'll be all over you, wanting to know why you're wanting to spend so much budget on an over-lapping sweep."
"Yes, well, I'll just tell him we caught a sniff of that Russian nuke boat. That'll tickle his funny side. By the time he stops laughing, we'll have our new sweeps done."