Marsh unclipped the harness that was securing him to a chair and slowly stood up. The ship was still accelerating away from the surface but they had reached an altitude where the gravity of the planet was no longer having a noticeable effect. The acceleration no longer held him down or provided something safe to push against. He floated gently upwards in the low gravity that the vessel generated from its internal spin to stand upright.
Marsh began the walk forwards to the small chamber ahead. It was the ship’s mess and utility room, located just behind the cockpit. He would meet Drick there once they had the vessel locked onto its course, and the automatic systems fully engaged.
While he waited for Drick to join him, Marsh busied himself with getting the equipment unpacked and stowed away properly for the journey. Everything on this vessel was new. The ship itself was new, and had only just completed its first safety mission. It was unregistered and untracked. It was very compact, mostly because of the wide variety of extra systems and capabilities. Crew were confined to a small area to give maximum room to other flexible options.
Marsh started the food recycling system and set the preparation machines to making a small dinner. It would be a protein and fibre shake with some high carb cereal bars. All the growing body needs, he mused. At least the synthesised coffee was better than it had been a millenia ago. Well a millenia ago to the memory they implanted and grew in him of how the coffee tasted. Marsh guessed that there were no irregular tenses that covered the way inn which he existed. Hell, in this age everything was likely the subject of at least one irregularity.
There was a light sound that was the slight pressure change, the door to the cockpit opened and Drick came through. They wore a full spacesuit, as did Marsh. A standard procedure for such a small vessel on take off. “We can get out of the hard suits and put on pressurised jumpsuits now,” said Drick. “I see you started food.”
“If you can call it that,” Marsh muttered. “Didn’t want to sit around doing nothing. Coffee will be ready in thirty seconds.”
Drick nodded and moved past Marsh into the small rear cabin that contained the passenger chairs and the small sleeping quarters. They would be using hammocks that could be rolled up and stowed to preserve space.
Drick quickly undressed and changed into a soft suit. It was an all-in-one affair with a static-powered seal running down one side. Once closed it stretch adjusted to the body, it reacted to body temperature to reform into a tight and flexible fit. Then it inflated ever so slightly with its own internal pressure. With a face mask on you could survive in a vacuum in a soft suit for hours. It was a standard outfit for space travel. It felt like wearing a comfortable lycra wetsuit.
Drick flicked a glance at Marsh as he came into the same room and changed. He wasn’t as fast or assured as Drick and fumbled the static seal. “Here,” Drick took his hand and placed theirs above it and used their fingers to push his in the correct manner. “Don’t pinch, or press too hard, gently slide along the length. The seal is sensitive, but once it snaps shut it is locked and you need to deactivate it with an internal suit trigger or user interface command.”
Marsh felt that Drick’s hand stayed on his for a fraction of a moment longer than expected. He looked into their eyes and noticed that they stared at their hand before dropping it away. “Thanks,” he said quietly.
“Don’t mention it,” Drick said and moved quickly back to the mess room. Drick sat down and locked themselves to the seat so that they wouldn’t drift off the surface. In low gravity even the actions of cutting bread could flip you upwards as Newtonian physics still had prominence. The gravity was less than ten percent of one Terran norm, so even slight movements in one direction could result in big distances as forces were equal and mass was not constrained so dramatically by friction, gravity and pressure.
Drick poured the coffee slowly into two mugs and flipped the lids shut. The cups had release catches to drink that would auto shut if not at the mouth. Drick passed Marsh a cup as he sat down. “Go on, you’re dying to ask questions. I can tell.” Drick smiled at Marsh. “It’s been a few busy weeks and II can see you’re getting edgy. I know stuff, you don’t and you have been dropping non subtle hints.”
“Damn right I have.” He took a sip of the coffee and tried not to grimace at the taste. “There’s a lot you are not telling me. But we will start with the basics. Where the hell are we going?”
“Outer edge of the solar system, close to where the Kuiper Belt for this system is located. Close for a given value of close. We will be a few million klicks from the belt itself.”
“Okay, that’s going to take a while to get there then?” Marsh sipped the coffee.
“I am afraid so. We are going to be accelerating for about six weeks and then we will decelerate for about three weeks before we reach the destination.”
“That seems fast than I expected but I don’t really get technology here yet. Is there a planet we are heading towards?”
Drick smiled “It’s fast enough. And yes we have improved acceleration and constant acceleration in the last millenia or so. We’ll be outside of the orbit of the furthest planet in this system.”
“Okay. Then what’s there?”
“If you had detailed scans,” Drick tapped a combination into the flat panel table and a series of images were projected above the surface. “Which we do.” Drick smiled slightly. “It looks like there isn’t much at all. Mostly empty space with a few cosmological bodies floating around. The occasional wandering rock or comet that’s not got the energy to swing fully from the outer parts of the system to be a threat or of interest to anyone with a life.”
“Okay. I know there’s more, are you deliberately teasing?”
“Yes. I like watching your expressions change.”
Marsh stared at Drick expecting the next sour comment. When none came he spoke. “So what am I not seeing in these images.”
Drick adjusted one of the images and zoomed in on it as close as possible without too much pixelation. “This. Looks like a rock. A, very, big rock. Probably about a million kilogrammes, so worth watching even by bored cosmologists. It’s going to affect something so it is going to be tracked. Likely a stray bit of flotsam left over from the system creation. However the data.” Drick pulled up reams of sensor information. “Shows very little. It responds a little too much like you’d exactly expect it to.”
“You’re suspicious of a rock acting exactly as it should do? A rock that’s floating in space billions of miles away? Well, this may stun you rigid. But I bet that every rock out there is also behaving the way you expect it to..”
“They will be. However they don’t get a visit from a stealth ship once every three months. And they also don’t change course. This is the same rock when this system was first surveyed over a thousand years ago.” Drick showed the data from much older sensor readings. The information wasn’t as precise and the accompanying images less defined. But it was the same rock. Drick placed the orbits and trajectories next to each other. “This rock should have worked its way further out towards the edge of the system. The original readings state that it would eventually end up as an outer body. It is currently about three billion kilometres off course. That’s not usual, collisions, poor sensor readings. But, there is no trace that it hit anything else, and there are no big bodies that could be exerting a gravitational effect on it. Even if it had hit something, the chances of it achieving a stable orbit from that. And it is in a stable orbit, unlike many thousands of its fellow outer system debris friends. The chances of it not having any impact damage from an event that would be staggering in force to alter its trajectory, are not even slim. They are impossible. so that means only one thing.”
“Somebody, or something, deliberately changed its course?” Marsh guessed.
“Yes.” Drick sipped at the coffee and made a face of slight distaste that Marsh guessed was as bad as his own.
“What else do you know? Who is visiting it?” Marsh looked into Drick’s eyes. “Why are they visiting it?”