Fate of the UNS Moon Dancer

by Shrink Laureate

Chapter 2

Sunset had the top bunk. She lay on it today, brushing two fingers against the ceiling above her face, skimming through a folder of old photos.

The door was kicked open by Solar Flare, carrying a bag of freshly baked croissants, the warm smell quickly filling their small room. “Hey, Sunshine, look lively. I got us a treat.”

“Hey,” said Sunset half-heartedly, without looking.

Dropping her bag on her bed, Solar hopped nimbly onto the ladder to lean over the edge of Sunset’s bunk and stare at her face. “If I didn’t know better, I’d imagine the great Admiral Shimmer had been crying.”

“Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen.”

Solar cast an eye over the old 2D photos scattered across the ceiling. “Another one?”

“Another one,” admitted Sunset. She frowned. “How’d you know?”

“’Cause you always get nostalgic when some guy asks you out,” she said, reaching up to twist one of the pictures around with a wriggle of her fingers. “That’s Rainbow Dash, right? She looks really happy. When was this?”

“Right after she got her pilot’s license,” said Sunset with a small smile. “It was the best day of her life. A great time for pilots, with the scramjets just starting to fly into space. That’s Spitfire in the background, and Pinkie Pie with the bullhorn behind her.”

Solar flicked her wrist, sending the picture back to the folder where it came from. “So who was it this time?”

Sunset took a deep breath as she wiped her palm to put the pictures away, leaving the ceiling a blank slate grey. “Silent Running.”

Solar sneered in mock disgust. “The kid that was sick in the upside-down room?”

“Hey, that’s not fair, Solar. He’s a nice kid. He’s not too bad at low-G movement now, and his astrogation is top notch. Ask him about any star, and he’ll have something interesting to say.”

“Oh really? So if he’s such a nice kid, why’d you say ‘no’?”

Sunset turned away to look at the wall. “You know why,” she said quietly. “He’s not…” She swallowed.

“He’s not a pony?” finished Solar.

Sunset stared glumly at the wall. “Yeah.”

Solar watched her for a few more seconds, curious to see if she was willing to say more. When it was clear that no more was coming, she slid down the ladder and started unpacking her shopping. She put the kettle on and pulled open cupboards, leaving Sunset with her thoughts.

“He’s not her,” whispered Sunset.

The door slid closed behind Sunset, leaving her in darkness. The airlock was still in a vacuum, so she saw nothing, heard nothing, smelled nothing, tasted nothing. Tentatively she walked hand-over-hand along the wall, fumbling for hand-holds. As she worked her way along the airlock, the gravity eased back, letting her alight onto what was now the floor.

She tried waving and tapping on the control panel at the end of the airlock but it refused to flicker into life, so instead, she felt for the manual access panel next to it and wrenched it open. A couple of tiny coloured LEDs inside showed there was at least a modicum of power present, allowing her to find the door controls. First she pulled the lever to equalise the pressure, and was disappointed to hear no hiss of incoming air, meaning the section behind the door must also be in a vacuum. She turned the wheel that unscrewed the bolts holding the sides of the door together, then pumped the handle to release the heavy metal doors. Stepping back to the door, she slid her fingers between the doors and pulled it open.

The corridor behind was dark. Red emergency lights were dotted over and around a few doorways, casting an ominous air over the enclosed space. The gravity was weak, uneven and shifting, making it feel like the corridor tilted slightly, adding to the claustrophobic effect.

She turned to the first door she came to. The panel was responsive, lighting up in slowly moving circles of colour, but said simply ‘Network unavailable’. She pulled off the cover of the manual controls, letting it clatter to the floor and slide away, reached for the release handle… and stopped.

The luminous red-yellow striped markings around the door showed it to be an ‘air closet’, one of the many air-tight rooms scattered across the ship where the crew could shelter in case of decompression. Each was large enough for three or four people at most, and supplied enough air and water to keep them alive for a few days – assumed to be long enough for help to arrive.

The corridor was still in a vacuum, she could tell by how much everything hurt. The room she was about to open had spacesuits in it, that would make her movement more comfortable. But if there were people inside here, and she opened the door…

There were no windows in air closets. They’d be a weak point, in a structure whose entire purpose was to survive extreme stresses like this one. Frustrated, she tried the panel again but it refused to answer the question of whether anybody was in there.

Grabbing the nearby handle for leverage, she pressed her ear against the door, pushing to ensure as much contact as possible. There was no air in her ears, but she hoped the vibration would be enough for her to discern something.

Sure enough, there were muffled thumps inside indicative of living people. Some of the crew in this section had survived. Sunset couldn’t talk to them. She couldn’t see them. She didn’t know their names. But knowing there were survivors gave her purpose. It wasn’t just her own life she needed to save any more.

If there was anybody hiding in there, they’d only have a few days’ air and water. It wasn’t possible to open an air closet from the inside, since lack of oxygen so often produces confusion and hallucinations, making the option too dangerous for the exact circumstances in which air closets would be used. It would be too easy for survivors to kill themselves through a simple mistake.

She’d need to re-pressurise this section before the door could be opened, or provide another way out for the trapped crew. And for that, she needed to find out what had happened to the Moon Dancer.

Sunset sat down at the little round table in their apartment, politely averting her eyes.

At the front door, Silent Running and Solar Flare shared some quiet, intimate words and a brief kiss. Solar Flare shut the door, slunk over to the table and sat down.

Neither girl met each other’s eyes. They both sat awkwardly, neither speaking. Solar pulled her gown close around herself, clutching the fabric tight in her fingers.

Sunset broke first. “So… do you want me to move out?”

“What?” Solar jerked up. “No! No no no no no.”

“You’re sure? Only…”

“No! I… Sunset, I love having you for a roommate. You’re smart and thoughtful and tidy. You’re a great cook, for a vegetarian. And I can trust you.”

“Thanks. I just thought that, maybe, you and Silent might want…”

“That… No. That’s…” she slowed down, took a breath. “That’s just a little fling. It’ll be over soon, probably. I’m, uh… sorry you had to see that,” she said more quietly.

Sunset didn’t meet her eyes, but she made a show of confidence as she said, “It’s fine, really it is.” Sunset paused before asking, “So um… Does he know?”

“Know? That you’re…” Solar glanced at the door to make sure it was closed. “Four hundred years old? An alien? His superior officer?”

“Er, yeah. One of them. Any of them.”

“No, he doesn’t. I figured you’d tell him when you wanted to. If you wanted to.”

“Thanks,” said Sunset, finally relaxing a little.

“He’ll work it out eventually, though. There aren’t that many Sunset Shimmers around.”

“I know. I’ll tell him when I think he’s ready. And when he’s been security cleared, I suppose,” said Sunset with a sigh. “Sweet Luna’s moon, my life can be so damned complicated.”

“I’m sorry,” said Solar. “I’ve gone and made it all more complicated than it needed to be.”

“Nah. Silent Running is a good-looking man, I can’t fault you.”

Solar gave her a lewd smile in return. “Yeah, well, I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t seen before,” she said with a high tinkling laugh. Sunset tried to laugh along, unconvincingly. Solar’s face fell into a frown of disbelief. “Wait. Don’t tell me you’ve never…?”

Sunset bit her lip and shook her head, her eyes flicking to Solar and away. “I… no. I’m afraid not.”

“Not even once, in four hundred years?”

“Sorry. You know humans just don’t do it for me. No offence,” she added.

“None taken,” said Solar Flare with a smile. “But what about… y’know, back home, before you came here?”

Sunset leant forward, resting her chin on the table. “Nope. Back in Equestria I was just too focused on other things. Studying. Learning from Princess Celestia. Comparing my power to hers. Proving myself. I was barely more than a foal when I left.”

“I still can’t really imagine what it’s like there. Stories of magic and princesses seem so weird.”

“Maybe some day you’ll get to see it for yourself. I’ll introduce you.”

“That would be nice.”

The worst of the damage was to the rear of the third section, around and between the two airlocks. Ahead of that, closer to the second section, things looked less warped, and lights and controls worked. Even the gravity was more consistent here.

The full-height terminal sprang into life as she approached, filling the wall with the animated avatar of a unicorn pony with a muted yellow coat, a red-purple striped mane, dorky glasses and a big smile. She had a cutie mark of moon and stars, the same symbol that was painted on the side of the ship. She turned to greet Sunset Shimmer with, “Hi, Admiral—”

Sunset shut off the avatar program. The last thing she needed was an annoying AI burning up CPU cycles and trying to be helpful. Instead she brought up a map of the ship, showing which areas could be contacted and what the damage was.

There were two big holes in the hull on opposite sides of the third section: one of them straight through the dorsal airlock, the other close to the ventral airlock. Between them a straight line of devastation, rooms and bulkheads marked in red. Something small, fast and incredibly solid had punched its way straight through the reinforced hull and out the other side, leaving a trail of twisted material behind it.

She played back the recording of the event. The object, whatever it was, had spent just a fraction of a second inside the ship. It entered near the ventral airlock, the hole she’d seen on her way in. It skimmed the edge of the aft bridge, tearing the globe and letting the atmosphere out. It had sliced through the dorsal airlock like a tin can on its way out, puncturing the compressed air tanks next to it. Every room it touched was exposed to space. Despite internal doors it had taken less than a minute for the whole of section three to decompress.

In the Solar system, every object bigger than a fingernail was tracked by myriad automated systems, their positions relayed in real time, so ships knew to move out of the way. You couldn’t always see a fast-moving object coming, but you didn’t need to. It was all taken care of. It was practically impossible to hit anything.

The Moon Dancer was a long way from Sol. This was the first mission to reach Epsilon Eridani, and they’d barely been here long enough to count Ægir’s rings. There could be billions of objects spinning their way at high speed around the planet. The chance of actually hitting one was astronomical, but it had happened.

Section three was open to space, but according to the display the others were unharmed. There was even network communications across the gap between sections two and four, by at least three routes. This was good. Section one at the front of the ship held the FTL field generators. Section four at the rear had the actual engines. They’d need both of those if they ever wanted to get home. Section two held one of the two bridges, the one they’d have to use now the bridge in section three was destroyed. There were crew alive in the other sections, their warm bodies showing up as moving yellow blotches and against the pale blue outlines of the ship.

There were nineteen survivors in section three, weathering the storm in air closets; one of them had seven people crammed into a space barely big enough for four. The terminal labelled them as Fireplace, Plasmid, Marginalia, Honeysuckle, Mantissa, Silent Running and Epoch; and it helpfully pointed out that Marginalia had a broken arm and Epoch a concussion. Aside from the discomfort and injuries, though, they’d run out of air a lot quicker than planned. Sunset needed a way of getting them out safely.

She pulled up a call with somebody in section two. A few seconds later the face of a young man appeared in a window. She didn’t recognise him. He had dark blue hair and lighter blue skin. He also had a gash across his forehead.

He was surprised to see her, and Sunset could see hope warring with pain in his features. He said something to her, lips moving, but she couldn’t hear anything. Instead she pulled up a text chat.

Sunset Shimmer (Adm)
I need an air cage.

Splashdown (Lt)
Admiral, you’re alive? I thought s3 was open to space?

It is. Very painful.

The shock on his face deepened.

There’s an airlock near you.
come through, we’ll get you to medical asap

No. I’m fine. Just send a couple of air cages through.
And cans to pump them up.

You’re sure?

I’m sure.

where are the air cages?

In medical, left, under the second bed

In other circumstances she’d have rebuked his informality, but now wasn’t the time. Discipline was something you earned during the slow, safe times, then spent during emergencies like this.

There were four internal airlocks leading from section three to section two, and one of them was indeed near her. She drifted down the narrow curved corridor and around the corner to find it, zigzagging from hand-hold to hand-hold. Parts of the ship had lights and at least a little gravity, while others were darkened and freefall.

When opening onto a vacuum, the airlock was supposed to remove all the air from the chamber inside, but from the faint breeze as the door opened and the way the flat-pack air cages inside started to tumble out that clearly wasn’t fully working.

It was easy enough for Sunset to drag the cages through twisty corridors to the sealed door and attach the first of them. She attached a can of air and twisted the nozzle just a little. Straight away the flat tent expanded into a cube, before the sides pushed out further. Readouts flowed across the transparent sides, listing air pressure, humidity, oxygen levels and myriad other details. When they indicated it was livable, she tapped the right code into the control panel to open the door, allowing trapped sailors to spill out of the cramped cupboard.

She watched them catching their breath. A few of them said “thank you”, along with comments about the smell of seven people in one cupboard; she couldn’t hear them, but the air cage helpfully displayed subtitles for every one of them, glowing words streaming across the flexible window.

Silent Running was at the back of the group. He looked directly at Sunset as he silently mouthed the words, “Solar Flare,” her name appearing in luminous letters across the plastic sheet in front of her. His hopeful smile brought a fresh stab of pain; Sunset had to watch it collapse as she shook her head. He took a step back to allow Marginalia into the air cage in his place.

The cage was only big enough for four people, but she attached the second cage to the door before she left. Those left behind were much less cramped than before and had a spare can of oxygen to keep them going.

Sunset would come for them soon. She would get every damned sailor she could out of section three.

“So what happens if we extend the field further out the front of the ship? Say a few hundred metres. That way light’s not going to build up right in front of the hull.” Silent Running sketched a curved line a few inches in front of the blob representing a ship.

“You’re still going to get Cherenkov radiation though,” replied Sunset. “It’ll just be wherever the new boundary is.” She doubled over his line, making it more solid. “And the further you push, the more expensive it is.”

Solar Flare was sitting on a couch nearby with a mug of green tea, reading the news on an old-fashioned roll-up tablet. She was doing her best to ignore the discussion. Her job was navigation and telemetry, not propulsion.

“Why? The field power doesn’t ramp up that sharply in the lab.”

“That’s because the lab isn’t travelling faster than light. Remember, the field is carried by real particles which are themselves subject to the speed of light, so to project that past the front of the ship you need a field strong enough to allow that field itself to propagate. The edge of the field becomes sharper the faster you go, and the energy costs go way up.” Sunset added a set of arrows from the blob to the line, then more arrows behind them, then more arrows behind them until the area in front of the ship was a mess of pen scratchings. “Suddenly you’re spending 90% of your energy carrying the field itself, not the actual payload. It’s the old rocket fuel dilemma all over again.”

Just ahead of the line representing the edge of the field, Silent Running added a little circle. “Right, but all of that energy has to go somewhere. And you still have conservation of momentum, even when you’re going faster than light. I bet if you did the math, you’d find that all the extra energy you’re spending ultimately goes into pushing incoming objects away.” He added a heavy arrow leading away from the little circle.

“And for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” She drew a similar heavy arrow from the back of the ship. “Whatever pressure you put on anything in front of the ship will push back against the ship itself, so you have to spend more to get the ship moving. Like a superluminal snow plough, coming up against every stray ion between here and Eris. That’s going to push your costs way up. More so since you’re pushing sideways as well, which is energy gone to waste.” She drew arrows in both directions away from the little circle.

“It’s energy gone into not blowing up in a horrible fiery explosion. I’m not sure I’d call that a waste.” He regarded the now indecipherable mess of scribbles. “What are the other teams doing, anyway?”

“Officially, I don’t know, and you shouldn’t ask,” reprimanded Sunset. “Unofficially though, I think most of them are staying sub-light, using the field to save on propellant but not actually doing FTL at all. The same way the asteroid miners use it, only longer distance. If we want to get to Eris ahead of them, we need to crack the Cherenkov problem.”

“At least it gives us a way of braking when we get there. Could we do a couple of short bursts of FTL then stay sub-light the rest of the trip? We’d still get there before the other teams.”

“I guess. Feels like cheating, though, to just barely skim light speed.”

“I still don’t get why you’re so eager to win a prize you’re sponsoring in the first place. It’s not like you need the course credit. I mean, you can pretty much give yourself whatever honours you want, right? Honourary degree? Here you go, ma’am.”

“Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis,” joked Sunset Shimmer. “But really it’s about making sure I can do whatever I’m asking other people to do. It’s not like admirals just sit around in comfortable chairs, drinking brandy and pushing little models around a map.”

Solar Flare paged to the next article, skimmed the title and said, “Huh. Hey, Sunset.”

“And does that count if you do your propulsion project with a bunch of kids?” needled Silent Running.

“Of course,” replied Sunset smugly. “Friendship is one of the most important things to learn.”

Solar said, “Hey, Sunset?” again. She flicked the article from her pad onto the wall, but Sunset wasn’t looking.

Silent Running took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m starting to see double. Let’s take a break. Then after lunch we can do simulations for a bunch of distances and see how much it really changes things.”

“Fair enough,” said Sunset. “You coming, Solar?”

“Yes, but read this,” she said impatiently.

Sunset Shimmer stretched her arms up, arching her back like a cat. “I’m sure it can wait till after lunch.”

Annoyed, Solar stood up, grabbed Sunset’s shoulders and turned to point her at the headline.

SETI scientists race to decode mystery signal

Professional and amateur astronomers alike have been rushing to decode a short audio clip released by UNSETI in Holland this morning, working in collaboration with the radio astronomy team at the University of Phobos. The signal was caught and relayed by a deep space probe and flagged by an AI as potentially resembling the product of an alien intelligence – though as yet no meaning has been found in it.

The analogue radio signal is believed to have originated in or near the 23 Librae system. It was captured by the deep space probe Surya 14-B9a as it passed through a ‘sweet spot’, on the opposite side of Sol at a distance of 591 AU, thanks to the unique gravitational lensing position. The 14-B9a probe has since moved from that location, and has no spare fuel to turn around, so further listening will have to wait three weeks until a dedicated communications relay, launched from Phobos this morning, reaches the sweet spot. Meanwhile telescope arrays across the Solar system are being pointed in the direction of 23 Librae in the hope of seeing something unique or identifying the specific planet of origin.

Already, some are hailing this as the first real radio signal received from another intelligence. Critics caution that the SETI program has produced a great many false alarms in the centuries it’s been scouring the sky for alien life, though they admit that many of those turned out to be significant astronomical phenomena in their own right.

A spokesman for the University of Phobos exolinguistics department admitted that their team had as yet been unable…

Sunset blinked as she read the first few paragraphs. “There’s audio?” she asked.

Solar tapped to play the sound. A hissing, popping, rustling sound filled the room. Even with the best audio filters available, any signal was still drowning in noise, but underneath that lurked an irregular sound that could maybe be a voice if you imagined really hard.

When it finished, Solar looked disappointed. “Huh. I guess maybe it’s nothing after all. Sorry for getting your hopes up.” She turned to Sunset Shimmer to find her standing there with tears forming in her eyes. “Sunset, are you okay?”

Sunset coughed. “Yes. Um. Can you play that for me again?”

Solar tapped the audio clip. It still sounded like nothing at all to her, a faint mumbling that only seemed vaguely like a voice, buried under a lot of noise. Sunset stood, eyes glazed, listening to something neither of them could hear.

When it was over Silent Running asked quietly, “What is it, Sunset? Can you understand it?”

Sunset nodded. “I think so. It’s… it was Princess Luna doing a radio interview. Talking about returning from visiting their first permanent moon base. She said… she said that Twilight Sparkle was leading the team.” She looked at the article filling the wall. “How far away was this? How long ago?”

“23 Librae,” said Silent Running. “That’s eighty-five light years away.”

“Is that all?” Sunset started laughing, a grin spreading as she sniffed tears up. “Just eighty five-light years. That’s nothing.” Solar pulled her into a hug. “I’ve found her,” Sunset mumbled into her shoulder, sobs and laughter melding. “At last, I’ve found her.”

Silent Running was on the phone. “Yes, a reservation for three, please. This lunchtime, yes, as soon as you can. And could you have a bottle of Champagne ready?”