CURRENT SYSTEM 4389, two jump gates; Bruton and 4390, no inhabited bodies or stations.
Jown was relieved when the passive systems picked up the comet. What a waste this trip and the probes would have been if it had just been a phantom never to be seen again. Of course it was probably a waste anyway, but he just couldn't live with himself if he didn't check it out, could you? Staying totally passive Jown passed the passive intercept data to the probe and launched it on it's quietest (and slowest) mode. It very slowly accelerated away from the Gater and disappeared quickly from his own passive sensors. He had set it to report at 10 minute intervals so he had to wait.
Right on time the report came in. To Jown's surprise it wasn't heading straight for the comet, it was headed for one of the asteroid belts to use it as cover while it closed the distance. Pretty smart. They had said it was good software. This was going to take a while, but the good news was that so far it was working, Gater's passives still were tracking the comet.
All in all it took several hours. Jown ate and played his flute, but he couldn't possibly nap. He had waited too long for this. The probe sent a report about 5 minutes before close contact. Then just as it should have arrived Jown's passives lost contact. He immediately went active and ordered the probe onto active, continuous reporting. Neither picked it up, it was gone again. But what had the probe "seen" before it disappeared? Jown ordered a complete encounter download and ordered the probe to return.
While the probe flew back Jown examined the data. The probe had come in from behind and gotten within 10,000 meters. The first confirmation that this was no comet was that there was no halo. Jown look closely at the event recordings in visible, infrared and x-ray modes. It was definitely artificial. Smooth contours and conforming arrays, but no visible exhaust ports. Then suddenly as the probe closed, with no exhaust flash of any kind, it accelerated at 90 degrees to its previous path, and away from Gater, at an unbelievable rate. It was gone in few seconds. A chill ran down Jown's spine and he broke out in a sweat. He had stumbled onto someone’s Top, Top Secret weapon development site. And with this kind of stuff if they knew that he knew, then he was a dead man. He killed everything except the passives and ordered the returning probe back stealth mode with intermittent reporting and waited. Jown was still shaking an hour later when the probe returned and docked. Should he make a run for it? Maybe they didn't know yet he had sent a probe? Jown turned Gater around, and flew as casually as he could back to the gate and jumped back to Bruton. He expected any second for a shot to come out of the darkness, but nothing ever came.
In Bruton system he didn't wait for his usual passive search, he moved at full speed to the nearest large asteroid, landed and shut down again, except for the passives. Jown had calmed down a little. "They obviously didn't detect my probe and their ... ship? probe? Yes it must be unmanned so a probe then ..., it must not have been set to immediately report encounters. So all they saw was Gater enter, loiter around for a few hours and leave. But when they download the probe data, they're going to come looking for me. They won't jump in using one of their new toys so I should be able to see them come in. But I need to ID them so I can avoid them and so I don’t stupidly try and sell this secret to their own government. Got to know who they are!"
Jown waited a day and a half. At the end of the first day he was exhausted and fell into a fitful sleep. Lot's of dreams. He woke with a start and then the cobwebs cleared. His fingers raced as he called up the passive data collected while he slept. Nothing... Nothing had come or gone from the gate. Nothing had even approached it. … It had been too long. They should have been here by now. Maybe they were trying to come in the other gate, but no, that wouldn't work there was no way around. The other 4389 gate was a dead end.
Jown pulled up the probe data again. In his fright he hadn't taken time to look at the more obscure data it collected. He began now to look at it.
Magnetism Traces - none.
"None? Must be made of non-magnetic material, but why?”
Electrical Traces - none.
"That's no surprise, probe never got close enough to pick up electricals."
"What's this? Doesn't make any sense. None until it moves and then ... wham, a burst of negative gravity. Negative gravity? What is that? Doesn’t occur in nature that he had ever heard of and that means … its artificial. So this thing has a gravity drive!"
Jown was in utter disbelief. Mankind had been working on the gravity enigma for centuries and gotten absolutely no where, but it explained everything. No exhaust nozzle because it doesn't need them. No signature Gater could pick up when it "disappeared" because Gater doesn't passively scan for gravity. High speed departure made possible because a gravity drive would not be limited by the physics of an impulse drive. But that made this even bigger than he had initially feared. It was more than just a remote Top Secret testing area with cutting edge stuff. What they had was revolutionary. But who in their right mind would risk discovery of something this big out in the middle of nowhere without even a monitored and patrolled exclusion zone? There should have been fighters, corvettes AND destroyers keeping intruders out. But there was no one! How could that be? Could it be a stray? Maybe they started it up and it just up and left the test range. They sure wouldn’t be able to keep up. But they would have had shut down commands all over it's operating algorithms and a tracking beacon. And it sure didn't act like it was malfunctioning. It did it's comet mimic and it's disappearing act perfectly. It just didn't add up.
Jown mulled over it for a long time, but couldn't come up with anything new. The big question was what was HE going to do? He could make some good money just selling the information. But who to sell it to? And who not to sell it to? Maybe if it was a stray, and he could find out who's it was, ... yes there was big, big money if he could quietly tell it's owners where it was. But he always came back to the same dead end, who's was it? Finally Jown decided there was only one thing to do, but it crossed his cautious grains. He had to go back, and find out more. The going back would be easy (maybe lethal, but easy). But how could he hope to find out anything more? “Well maybe, just maybe if I don’t spook it by getting too close with the probe, but just follow it for a while. And maybe using the two probes working together. And maybe if I hmmm ... it’s worth a try.”
Posted by strailon Monday, December 03, 2012 @ 00:00:00 UTC