Genre: Science Fiction
Short Story Type: Novelette
Summary: The starliner Pericles is en route to earth from the Gliese system with a full load of passengers and cargo. It's a journey of nearly ten years for those onboard the ship, and over twenty for those on earth. The passengers pass the journey in cryo-suspension, but the crew can't all sleep the journey away. Instead, they man the ship in year-long shifts. Carlton is the day-shift pilot on duty in the middle of the transit, and expects a boring year with little to do but monitor instruments and occasionally make a small course correction. Then the forward sensors detect an object ahead, moving too quickly to be a natural body like an asteroid. When the object turns out to be a ship of unknown design, the ensuing encounter will change his and his shipmates' world forever.
Excerpt:Carlton was about to respond when the first few bars from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony emanated from the console on the wall and drew his attention. Each crewmember wore locator devices that allowed the ship’s internal sensors to keep track of them and forward calls wherever they were onboard. Beethoven’s Fifth was Carlton’s “ring tone”, to borrow a phrase from ancient Earth history.
He walked over to the console and tapped the screen. An automated message popped up. Forward sensors had detected something ahead. Carlton frowned in annoyance. Probably just another rogue asteroid crossing their path. All the same, he had to check it out.
“I gotta go back to the bridge, babe. Be back in a bit.”
Five minutes later, he floated up to his pilot’s console and woke it up with a tap on the screen. A couple taps later and he had the forward sensors called up. This was no asteroid. Whatever it was, it was big, about a light-hour ahead, and traveling on a near-collision course with them. The doppler readout indicated the object was traveling at .8c: slower than a starliner, but definitely not natural.
Carlton punched up the intercom to the command center.
“Yeah Carl. What’s up?”
“Better get up here, Cap’n.”
In the few minutes it took the Captain to get to the bridge, Carlton entered the commands to wake up the lower forward observation camera. Essentially a 4 meter telescope mounted beneath the bow of the ship, the camera, and its fellows mounted just aft of the bridge and above and below the main engines’ fuel tanks aft, was onboard for just this purpose.
The camera finished warming up and was beginning to zoom in on the approaching object when the Captain arrived at his side.
“Object ahead, Cap’n. Moving too fast to be an asteroid.”
Her eyes scanned the sensor readout quickly, and she nodded agreement.
“Not supposed to be another until Haverly, next month. Besides, this thing’s too slow.”
The Captain’s words stuck in her throat as the image from the camera filled the screen. It was difficult to make out in the faint illumination from the distant stars, but it was definitely a vessel. It was of no design Carlton had ever seen, though, and he’d seen them all. No rings, no plasma engine nacelles. It was crescent-shaped, off-white in color, and tumbled slowly end over end through space.
“What the hell is that?” Carlton breathed.