The invitation to meet with the station chief of McLan Docking Station isn’t something anyone on it can refuse. The current chief is Sora and she’s been the station chief longer than I’ve been here. I’ve never met her and never wanted to: you only meet a station chief in person as a mechanic if you do something flat-out amazing or awful and I’m not the kind of person to want fame. My quarters are small: a transfer doesn’t need much, after all. In my case it was mostly space to pace about on my treads while thinking about things. I’ve almost finished cleaning up for moving in with Orien when the message hit over the infoweb.
I listen to it twice to make sure its real and ping Orien with a copy and ask if he’ll come. He replies asking me to meet him outside his quarters and to keep my projection turned off; nothing else. McLan has gone through a hiring phase recently, so I’ve been keeping it up most of the time. People see Dar and its a mechanic in his twenties with an easy smile, not a transfer; not a cylindrical shape with treads for legs, limbs coming out of my chassis as needed and a viewscreen with a ‘face’ for ease of interaction. I don’t like keeping the projection always up because it feels like I’m lying to people, but enough people know what I am to tell newcomers anyway.
Orien is waiting outside his quarters when I arrive, his synth limbs registering stresses. All of his limbs and some of his torso are artificial, after a bomb: no one would know it to look at him. I frown in the viewscreen, scanning a little deeper into his apps and linkages. “You ran here.”
“This isn’t a casual invitation, Dar.” Nothing else, as he heads down the corridor to the officers-only lifts.
I take the hint and follow in silence as we find the right lift and head up to the officer’s levels and eventually a meeting room. There is no visible security in the hallways, but I don’t scan to check for what must exist. Orien just nods for me to enter first, trying not to look worried. I enter the room to find it is full of baffles: I couldn’t scan anything in here even if I wanted to. The only visual interface I have is through the viewscreen, aural systems limited to basic human, vocal systems at least untouched. Everything else is blocked.
The only inhabitants of the room are an Adjudicator I don’t know in a far corner, the security chief of the station whon I known is named Rodun, and the station chief herself, the latter two studying a viewscreen of overlapping star systems. I enter, stop, and start when Orien gives me a push from behind to move closer to them. He moves beside me without a word, nodding to everyone in the room.
“I do not recall authorizing anyone to join you,” Sora says. She is tall and solid, her appearance designed to be unremarkable and not noticed, her voice calm and bland. You wouldn’t think she was a station chief to look at her, which is entirely the point.
“You didn’t not do it,” I mumble. “And he’s a friend.”
“Ah, yes.” Rodun is a tall, burly man with a cold smile and colder eyes; he draws attention like predators tend to, even to me. “I believe I briefed you on that.”
Sora blinks, then just nods. I’m glad I don’t have my projection up, since I would be blushing furiously. I know my face is in the viewscreen alone; Orien is just still and quiet beside me. We’re moving in together. People talk. It’s complicated.
“Six galaxy-class craft are converging on a star system relatively close to Earth,” Sora says crisply, the map changing in time with her words. “We have been placed on high alert along with every other Docking Station. We are not being told why, nor what they intend. All we know is that a craft named Hope’s Chest dropped out of hyperspace and the ‘greeting’ for it feels more like an interception.”
“Oh.” My voice is very small, even to my ears.
“There is almost no data on Hope’s Chest on the infoweb. We believe it was removed some centuries ago, but my people were able to ascertain you have accessed said files in the past. We need to know what is going on. Please.”
“I –.” I lick my lips in the viewscreen. It almost flickers off against my will. Orien presses a hand to my chassis, saying nothing. Steadying. I extend a limb into his hand and feel a little better. Less alone. Less me. “There were three of them. Hope’s Diamond was destroyed in friendly fire – aka blown to pieces by someone who didn’t like it existing. Hope’s Reward and Hope’s Chest were sent through hingari space during the so-called first peace in the war.
“As far as I know, we’ve never been able to penetrate hingari space and find out what lies beyond that. Hence the wars with them, since we can’t get past them in hyperspace and expanding in real-space is taking a very long time. That’s broadly correct?”
“It is,” Sora says.
“Okay. The Hope-series were made to sneak through hingari lines. There was that brief period where people who became transfers became part of the engine of star ships, being an intelligence to help guide them but people being paranoid about them caused a few to self-destruct and it went badly. The Hope’s – all of them – were made and crewed entirely by transfers. Less space needed, more efficient designs, and they didn’t give off normal signatures so it was figured they could punch through hingari space and out the other side. If more than the three were made, it wasn’t made public knowledge at all. That one has come back is – I don’t know. Anyone who knows about this will be asking a lot of questions.
“Did the hingari let it return is it a trap, what are the crew and how many survived?” Sora says.
“Did it appear in an inhabited system by chance,” the security chief adds quietly.
“That, yes.” I let go of Orien’s hand and begin to pace nervously in front of them, rolling back and forth on the floor. “Because six galaxy-class ships are going to fire on it and burn Hope’s Chest into nothing along with an entire inhabited system. They’ll be too scared not to. ”
“You can’t know that,” Sora says.
“I’m a transfer. I know how people react to us. But it’s not about that: it would be even worse if it was humans aboard Hope’s Chest. The response, I mean. The hingari have technology far beyond our own, so what lies beyond them? Are they protecting us against something they themselves are fighting? We don’t know. There are limits to what can be done to my body, realistically. But a human body is a different story entirely in yours eyes. Pure potential, most of it likely untapped.”
“Weapons,” the security chief says grimly.
“And they’re going to blow it up. If they can.” I move back beside Orien, stop. “They could have turned the transfers into ambassadors, and we’ll go and murder them without even seeking to ask questions because fear is going to win out. Because it always has.”
“Because it has to,” Rodun says. “We can’t very well let some unknown threat back in, even if it is one of our making.”
“Thank you. Both of you,” Sora says. “Hope’s Chest has been broadcasting a request for a parley to every Docking Station and starcruiser. We can do nothing for them save to reply, to offer apologies. To hope that it might be different, if the other craft returns later on. I will send them a message, and hope it is something. I will watch it burn, because we should not look away. You may go now.”
“You do not need to see this, Dar. I would rather you did not.”
The security chief says nothing as the door slides open. I leave, with Orien close behind. We make it back to his quarters in silence. Orien seals the door as I stop in the middle of the room. My projection isn’t capable of bleeding, or of tears. I don’t turn it on. He just wraps his arms about my chassis in silence and holds me as I rock back and forth on treads and make soft, wordless noises.