The black hole loomed in the viewport, its majestic accretion disk a beacon in the darkness. It beckoned to Lieutenant Dalhouse like the Sirens, calling ancient sailors to their doom. The young officer decided it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, made more so by the rarity of the honor. For no mere civilian craft could long withstand the gravitational distortions, and military craft were rarely sent on detached duty like this.
After all, nothing living could survive in such an environment. At least, that was the conventional thinking. But military paranoia ran deep, Dalhouse reminded himself, and so his scout ship had been sent far beyond the ephemeral borders of Terran space just to make sure. He had a mission to accomplish, and it certainly didn’t involve navel gazing at a black hole.
“Sitrep.” Dalhouse ordered simply, trying to mask his excitement.
“All seems normal, captain.” The helm officer replied. “She’s answering a little heavy, but we expected that. Orbital insertion is proceeding normally.”
Dalhouse turned to the science team, led by a consultant from EarthGov. The young lieutenant didn’t care much for the academics, for they had a tendency to treat military men as uneducated grunts despite the education and training required to command any military starship. But they had the astrophysics degrees, and he didn’t.
“The gravity waves are a little strange for a black hole this size.” The EarthGov PhD stated, standing over the scanner array console, worry creeping into his voice.
“Dangerous?” Dalhouse asked.
“No, not dangerous. Just… strange.”
Dalhouse snorted, despite himself. “Is that a scientific term? Can you be a little more specific?”
“Well, if I didn’t know any better,” the suit began, “I’d say that we were getting a very large starline lock just outside the event horizon.”
Dalhouse rubbed his chin in confusion. That didn’t make sense. You didn’t starline that close to a black hole, not if you wanted to live, anyway. In fact, it wasn’t until about a decade before that the gravity drive had advanced to the point that you could even starline to a black hole at all.
“A computer malfunction, maybe?” Dalhouse speculated. “Comm, get me a computer team up here asap.”
“Sir.” The comm officer replied crisply.
The EarthGov consultant shook his head. “I don’t think it’s a malfunction. I’m telling you, I’m getting a starline fix, right there.” He pointed to the screen to emphasize his point. “And I’ll tell you something else, it’s big. I’ve never seen one that size, not even in the Sol system.”
“I think he’s right, sir.” The helm officer said warily. “It’s interfering with my own nav lock. I can’t even open our original starline back to base. Something’s blocking it.”
“Can you force it?” Dalhouse asked, trying to remember the starline engineering lectures from his days at the Lunar Academy. The actual technology was beyond him. In fact, it was beyond all but the brightest minds of Earth and even then it was speculated that most of them were just taking educated guesses. But he did know that starlines could only be opened when near enough to a strong gravitational source, and no two starlines could be opened particularly close to one another. The standoff distance needed varied depending on the size of the starlines being created.
For this mysterious starline to be blocking his own exit from the system, it had to be enormous beyond all reasoning. It had to be more advanced than any human drive system yet discovered by several orders of magnitude. Even Sol’s border forts couldn’t generate something big enough to block exit from a black hole.
If it couldn’t be human, that meant…
The helm officer shook his head, snapping the Lieutenant out of his introspection. “I’ve got nothing. The system won’t even engage, sir.”
“Shit. Cancel orbital insertion. Give me a course away from the starline source, best possible speed.” Dalhouse cursed again under his breath. Leave it to me, he mused, to get caught in a first contact situation with a scout frigate.
“Sir, something’s coming through. Multiple contacts, on intercept vector. Jesus, these things are fast.” The helm officer’s voice was filled with fear.
Dalhouse turned to the EarthGov consultant, who seemed catatonic with fear. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“The ships…. they’re…” The man was wild-eyed with fear, pointing to the screen in front of him. The design of the alien craft looked oddly familiar, somehow.
“Spit it the fuck out.” Dalhouse demanded angrily.
“They’re… the same. They’re the same!”
Dalhouse pondered that for a moment before his mind made the connection. They’re the same. There was only one thing a xeno vessel like these would be compared to, and he felt the same stab of fear that had overtaken the scientist. This wasn’t a first contact scenario after all, or at least not entirely so. But he had a job to do. He was surprised how easily the decision came to him, given the circumstances.
“Helm, I need you to put us into low orbit around the black hole. Keep the enemy behind you. I want you to skim the event horizon and push the starline drive to maximum power.” He commanded, surprised at how peacefully he had just ordered his own death.
“But, sir, we can’t last…” The helm officer frantically pushed the drive anyway, he knew better than to disobey his orders.
“I know, I know. But we’ve got to get a warning to Earth. If we try to open a starline to base, they’ll know something happened. We might even get a chance to transmit before…”
Dalhouse watched the black hole grow in his vision, thinking of those Sirens of old, beckoning the ancient sailors to their deaths, voices haunting and beautiful.