- T-minus four hours to impact -
In a callback to the seafaring submarines of antiquity, the command center of the SNS Xiangli XII was perpetually dark and quiet. The only illumination came from the dim blue lamps overhead and various holoscreens, and the on-duty staff never raised their voices above a whisper, natural side effects of their job as an Anubis E-II-class surveillance ship deep in enemy territory. High-resolution sensors and the cloaking device took priority over non-essentials like artificial gravity and interior lighting, and quite frankly Petty Officer Mikhali Perser-VI preferred it that way. In their line of work, change typically signified something had gone wrong, followed by days of a cat and mouse game that tended to end in their stealth ships exploding.
The ongoing conversation wasn't so dramatic, but it was incredibly nerve-wracking to be the subject of Captain Petraeus-II's infamous stare, which could make even a concept-based entity sweat bullets. Fortunately the man hadn't decided on a thought-accelerated interrogation, but his two-meter figure still absolutely towered over everyone else in their crash couches.
"So what did you see, Mikhali?" asked the balding skipper. "Something about a star flashing?"
"Yes sir. Well, Commander Xiangli and I think so," and Perser turned back to his holodisplay, as Petraeus-II watched attentively. A series of images pulled onscreen showed blurry images of a tiny but unmistakable flash of light amidst a sea of stars and debris. The timestamps showed that it barely lasted a minute, and the petty officer could see the cogs turn in his CO's head as he continued, "our scopes weren't focused on the region since it's mostly dust, but they provided enough data to confirm the nova's location and anomalous nature."
"And you're going to ask me for permission to use active sensors inside Interlink territory?" the Captain asked apprehensively. "It could just be an old reactor finally giving out, and if it isn't the risk of detection increases substantially. Whatever we're looking at, I don't fancy our odds against a hunting party."
"Sir, I agree that a scan would be dangerous, but the situation may deserve closer examination," Perser argued, and he sent a pleading glance to his fellow sensor operator, Ensign Ulysses-III. "We've seen an influx of transports and construction equipment through this galaxy, and the starburst could be leakage from a megastructure project of some sort. If that's the case, we won't need to break cover for long to confirm it."
His commanding officer stood silent, but the twitching of his eyes suggested wireless communications with the others. You've made a good case for our examination, Commander Xiangli messaged. I'll take it from here. The shipboard AI could be a little eccentric, but the reassurances were a relief regardless.
"Very well. You and the rest of the bridge crew will be receiving a plan of action shortly," the man finally said, before announcing the change of plans to the rest of the bridge. Perser barely registered the raised alert status, occupied as he was with setting up his console.
Everything that followed was well-practiced and procedural. First, the Xiangli VII would have to partially drop its cloaking field. The stealth ship would rely more on the vastness of deep space to stay hidden, but this freed up electrical power and minimized interference with more sensitive instruments. Then came the actual scanning.
The passive suite got first dibs on the suspected megastructure, with the venerable electromagnetic receivers of closer probes able to narrow down target locations through a combination of visual-infrared emissions and unusual radio traffic. With their ansibles, the probes ignored lightspeed delays with little risk of detection, especially compared to what the crew were about to do next.
"Powering up gravitic lens," Perser stated. Targeted at the suspected system, it would detect any masses and their distortions of the spacetime continuum. Something as large as a megastructure would be impossible to mask, especially when there was only supposed to be a cloud of dead star gas in the area, but an active gravitic lens was easily detected by other gravitic lenses.
"Major mass shadow detected, Captain," Ensign Ulyss-III added, the new occupant of a seat next to Perser, "with a displacement in the ballpark of a trillion metric tons."
"Resolving details," Perser continued, "merging image with probe tachyon beams." The lens seemed to show some sort of ring structure around a star, but with a diameter of only 2,000 kilometers, both its size and mass were far too low for a ringworld. Perser and Ulyss looked at each other, their confusion evident, only to be abruptly be pulled into accelerated augmented reality.
Stop all operations! This is more than enough confirmation, good work Ulyss, Perser, their Captain said, looking quite shaken. Our mission is to get this data to the Committee quickly and safely.
Agreed. Active suites deactivated, cloaking reengaged. Calculating probability of detection by the enemy... Commander Xiangli continued. They do not appear alerted to our presence.
The two sensor suite operators were still somewhat disoriented, but Perser managed to spit out the burning question on their minds. Sir, I have a question. What exactly did we see there?
That, son, is the first Interlink superheavy warship in construction. If it ever achieves operational status, this entire supercluster is done for, the Captain answered. Warp drive status?
A simple flash of neon green from the ship's engineer seemed to suffice for the officer. Excellent, now how about getting word out about the superheavy?
Our ansible is locked onto SNS Sybil 2 and transmitting all data, sir, a pale and reclusive cyberwarfare specialist announced, receiving orders from command.
Unfortunately, low level staff like Perser and Ulyss weren't privy to such messages, so they were forced to wait and watch as their CO's expression visibly changed from relieved satisfaction to shock and finally, to bitter resignation. Ending mind augmentation session, the ship cheerfully announced.
Back in the real world, Captain Petraeus steeled his expression and read out a new set of orders.
"From the Joint Commandant himself. Evade detection. Hold your position if possible. Prepare to assist Federation forces."
They never asked for much.