The expanse of the station formed a snowflake near the roiling, twisting blue mouth of Sol’s Linkway entrance. Busier than most other Navy stations its size, not including Forts Hera and Zeus, it was the most travelled. Pluto Station sat in the space between its namesake and Neptune, keeping a stationary position near the Linkway.
Ships came and went on an hourly basis, many Navy, but civilians also in a diverse array of races, manufacturers, and colours and shapes.
Pluto Station was a plum assignment but never a dull one, with plenty of excitement and plenty to keep its crew busy all shift. At least, that’s what the recruiters told Navy officer and enlisted recruits. In truth, it was dull and boring.
Even the station commander, Rear Admiral Ferron, was keen for another posting, even an exploratory or escort assignment. Something to relieve the mind-numbing boredom. As the station’s commander, he was nothing more than an administrator. Nothing happened in the Sol system, besides the odd pirate or smuggler trying their luck.
Ferron was surprised when the operations manager approached him quietly with a worried expression on his face. Ferron was stood at the central systems display table, watching the holographic representation of the station and the ships in and around the area. Every now and again, it flickered, the sensors registering interference from unprecedented solar flare activity.
“Sir,” the younger officer said, keeping his voice quiet. “I’ve been detecting movement around the Mars-Jupiter Asteroid Field, close to Jupiter’s current orbital position.”
“What kind of movement?”
The officer shrugged. “I’m not actually sure, sir.”
Ferron turned his full attention to the ops manager, curiosity furrowing his aging face. He must have been frowning as the officer looked more worried.
“Solar flares?” sighed Ferron.
The manager nodded with relief.
“All this technology and we’re stumped by overactive solar flares by our own home star,” Ferron muttered to himself. “Wait, what caught your attention?”
“I trained our visual sensors on it including the telescopes. One of the asteroids, Keidel-434 if I’m not mistaken, though I can’t properly identify without a full sensor scan.”
“You said the asteroid was moving.”
The officer nodded eagerly.
“Asteroids always move in that belt.”
The ops manager nodded again, this time a bit cautiously.
“Yes, sir, but it looks like this one is moving away from the belt, on a trajectory further into the star system.”
Ferron looked up at the holographic display.
“Get on to Headquarters if you can. What’s the closest ship to that location?”
The ops manager checked the information on his own console.
“The HMS Belfast was due to return, though with the solar flares the way they are, we can’t get a fix on them or comm them.”
Ferron grumbled once again about the uselessness of modern technology against natural phenomena.
“Are there any ships here available to do a flyby?”
The officer checked.
“Yes, sir. The frigate Hannah Dominguez is currently awaiting assignment.”
“Send them. Get them over ASAP. Tell them they have my permission to use FTL if they can get a decent lock on anything.”
Ferron watched the holographic display again, not taking his eyes off it.
“What is going on out there?”
* * *
HMS Hannah Dominguez.
The Sharif-class frigate raced through space. They were passing Jupiter’s orbit, across the edge of its massive gravitational field and using it to slingshot and gain some speed. FTL couldn’t lock on thanks to the solar radiation and now the engines were being truly pushed past their limits.
If they weren’t careful, the crew would fly the little starship apart.
The hull and engines were straining already.
But Rear Admiral Ferron’s orders were specific: get to the asteroid’s position immediately and find out what was happening as well as make contact with the HMS Belfast, current whereabouts unknown.
It took them close to an hour to reach the co-ordinates provided.
What they found…
As a ship that frequented the Terran system regularly, its computer held a catalogue of the asteroids that orbited Sol. Of the four that were close to the size of a moon in the asteroid belt, one was missing.
“It can’t be,” declared the ship’s commander.
“It should be right there, Commander,” replied the sensors officer, pointing out of the forward window. The was indeed a large gap where the asteroid should have been, but Commander Rezhan still couldn’t believe what his eyes were telling him.
“How does an asteroid the size of a small moon disappear?”
The sensors officer didn’t reply, his fingers flying over the console.
“Sir, I’m detecting large spikes of gamma radiation in our vicinity. The highest concentrations are centred around the last known position of the missing asteroid, though I couldn’t hypothesis why.”
“Odd,” Rezhan said out loud.
“Yes, sir. I’m also detecting minute particles of metal not normally found in asteroid belts. It could be the Belfast, but I can’t be sure without a more detailed investigation.”
Rezhan frowned, leaning forward in his command chair. “So it’s wreckage?”
“Could be, sir.”
Rezhan felt a great lump in his throat at the thought of a Terran starship being destroyed.
“The asteroid!” a junior enlisted shouted. She was pointing up where nobody had thought to look. Rezhan and the rest of the bridge crew gawped through the window panel above as the asteroid rolled away from them.
“Get on the horn to Pluto Station, Mars, Terra, anyone that can listen. Tell them we are tracking the asteroid. What’s it’s heading?”
“According to its trajectory and taking gravitational forces and such into account, its heading is…” The sensors officer trailed off, and turned around to face Rezhan, horror on his young face. “It’s on a direct heading for Earth.”
* * *
The frigate gave chase at a decent distance.
Rezhan didn’t want to get too close to the asteroid with so much unknown to them.
“It’s saturated with the gamma particle emissions,” the sensors officer reported. “Our shields will keep out any of the residual radiation, but they won’t keep everything out, and it could start messing with our systems.”
As if by some divine cosmic joke, the lights flickered as he said that and several secondary consoles went dark for a few seconds.
“What was that?” demanded Rezhan.
“Some kind of localised interference,” answered the sensors officer.
“Solar flares again?”
The officer shook his head.
“No, sir. I can’t pinpoint it precisely, but it looks like it’s coming from the asteroid itself.”
“I’m unsure, sir. It’s reading like a…” The lights shut down and the consoles went dark across the bridge before he could say anything more. The bridge was plunged into complete pitch black darkness, starlight and glow from the distant Sol lending a dim highlight to every hard edge.
“What the hell happened?” growled Rezhan. “Why haven’t the back-ups come on yet?”
He could feel himself lifting out of his command chair. The artificial gravity had failed along with everyone else. How much air did they have left?
The bridge crew began floating up into his view.
“Everything’s failed, sir,” answered the XO.
“Nothing’s working, Commander,” the helmswoman shouted. She was clinging to her console, her legs threatening to lift off and fly away without her. When he thought about it, he couldn’t hear the engines. In fact, other than the panicked talking of the crew and his own breathing, he couldn’t hear anything at all.
The entire ship was offline.
No air, no power, no engines, nothing.
One of the crew tried prying the bridge doors open, but the hydraulics had locked because of the loss of power.
He looked up and out of the wraparound forward windows. The asteroid had grown quickly, the Hannah Dominguez still moving under the momentum it had had before, the asteroid’s minimal gravitic field pulling the ship down faster.
“What were you going to say?” he asked resignedly, not taking his eyes off it.
“It’s a dampening field, Commander. Some sort of EM field that no technology can work in. I’m sorry, sir, we can’t even call for help, let alone warn anyone.”
Rezhan had enough time to hear the whimper and sobs of his crew before the HMS Hannah Dominguez slammed into the asteroid’s surface.