by John Steiner

The freeze on FTL exploration is over. Mockingbird is dispatched to the exo-planet, XJ-372495E to relieve an outpost team established by the Astraeus. They discover no response from the base, and fear the same fate befell the station as the FTLV. Col. Rama and crew land to investigate the small wind-blown base. Todd Nathanial Ash, Mockingbird's genetic specialist and Seti team member draws animosity from the science team leader. He and Cpt. O'Connell uncover signs of extinct civilizations, found by the first team, and learn what happened to outpost crew. That's when things get dicey.


Chapter 1


Unbelievable! That was the first thing to cross Colonel Ramachandra’s mind when given her new orders. The Mockingbird’s task—the target star—was some 5500 light-years away, making Kepler 22 look like a run around the block. The flip required a new FSD protocol that Mockingbird’s sister ship, the Magpie, had been developing over the last month, called Kinetic Flip Target. Even the star’s name was a mouthful, XJ-372495.

Temporarily stationed on the NATO oceanic platform named Atlantis Airbase, Sumitra was on her way with Major Fitch to a briefing room. There, her crew plus fifteen mission specialists of the science team waited. Once inside, with the morning sun lighting up the room in a brilliant gold from a wall full of windows, Colonel Rama stepped up to the podium. Among the civilians was a Dr. Kelly Yeldon, who seemed to keep staring at Mockingbird’s hydroponics technician, convicted bioterrorist and famed genetic hacker, Mr. Ash, in a chair two rows before him.

“Room, come to attention!” Chief Anders called out.

“At ease,” Rama announced, letting thirty four crew members sit back down, and then started the briefing. “As you may have noticed, the Mockingbird is undergoing re-modulation. This is to accommodate an extended personnel roster and scientific capabilities. That we’re over our optimum count by two means we’ll be Crew Heavy for the entire mission, which includes returning the research staff on XJ 372495 Echo, Little November to Earth. It’s a mini-Earth moon orbiting a gas giant around a sub-giant G-type star. They’ve been outside the system since the Astraeus left Sol. The team’s been on Planet Echo’s Moon November for little over a year and, all while outside any NoLo contact. They’ve only had one resupply visit by the ISS Sagan.

“XJ 372495 was the last star the ill-fated Astraeus had visited prior to the Gliese 667 mission. There are thirteen planets around this star, which has high metallicity, three of which orbit within its green zone. The largest of these planets were found in the 21st century on the outer fringes of what we now call the Fourth Observatory Threshold for exo-solar planet hunting. If ever there were to be an exo-solar human colony this star system would be top of the list for candidacy.

“Though no shipboard logs remained of how long the Astraeus took matching local velocities, the Sagan spent nearly a month at their highest XIP engine burn rate. They called it The Twenty-Eight Days at Twenty-Eight Degrees. That’s how long they spent doing everything at that angle when in their habitat ring. We’ll be matching up local-V within five days at a medium XIP burn.”

With that came a few incredulous looks and a subtle whistle by one of Rama’s two Operations officers. With that out of the way, Rama continued, “We’ll be carrying pretty much a full load in our cargo bay and Sup-Dep. For our lima bravo compliment, Bays One and Two are being reserved for the research team’s satellite network, solar orbit probes and planet-side rovers. For contingencies Bay Three will contain one Helmouth Demon, a Special Operations Atmospheric Reentry Capsule, one railgun artillery satellite, just one unmanned combat aerospace vehicle, an Umbrella remote shrouding countermeasure and the Hydra System.

“You all know why we’re taking a Hydra System with us, so no question on that. Bay Four will, of course, be for Starlings. Though, I highly doubt we’ll encounter any hostiles out there who are from Sol. For the first time we’ll also be running Four-Handed in CIC. Now it’s cramped in there as it is, but our fourth station was built into the combat information center for a reason.”

In fact all of Mockingbird would be more crowded, Rama rued inside. For the sake of the crew, she let no expression reach her face other than the fact she was going to suck it up with stoicism. Sumitra then concluded the mission brief for questions, of which she got two.

“Does this also mean Cat Two authentication on the Spectre?” she heard from a Spec Fab tech.

“Since we can’t rule out exo-solar intelligent activity from the Astraeus Event,” Colonel Rama answered. “Yes, Cat Two authentication will be issued once we’re onsite.”

“What’s the compliment of Little November outpost?” Lieutenant Diaz asked.

“There are twenty-seven team members for the facilities’ startup phase, several UAV’s for planetary survey work, an atmospheric and reentry shuttle and one emergency STO vehicle with cryptobiosis capabilities. This was in case the moon’s surface or the planet’s orbit became too unstable for life within the outpost. Members of exo-solar research teams were pre-screened for psychological instability, so none of the Astraeus’ security had been stationed planet-side.”

Rama noted that Mr. Ash, Lieutenant Sveindottir and the security team leader himself all took notes with the chromatic display option of their uniform sleeves. The former two each needed to adjust their jobs to handle the higher crew count they would be bringing back. Diaz’s professional concerns went to darker places, and rightly so given the Mockingbird’s first two missions.

“If that’s everything,” Rama wrapped up. “Cob, if you will.”

“Mission! Aten-huh!” Chief-of-the-Bird Carl Anders standing to her right called for all standard crew members to rise to his cadence, “I, S, S, Four, Five, Four!”

“Click-BANG!” Thirty-seven voices sounded off in practiced unison.

“Mission dismissed, and fallout to launch positions,” Anders barked the go order.


"FLIPSPACE: Oh Fortuna" by John Steiner


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