Aboard the airship HMS Intrepid, 73rdyear of Queen Nightflower’s reign. (3606 B.E)
Being near eighty degrees north latitude and worse yet, cruising at well over two thousand meters above the desolate hilly tundra below made a mockery of the season, early summer as it happened, so far as Commodore Blackanvil was concerned. It was the third of July, his eldest daughter’s birthday, and a day which, had he his way, would be spent eating fresh blueberries and imported Hosta leaves with family and friends in their ancestral villa, perched as it was on the slope of the most beautiful mountain valley this side of the Western Ocean, enjoyed views of the capitol many a duke or lord would covet. Of course, it could be cold there, even bitterly so, but that was only during the winter. Here though, so far north and so high up, there was only ever cold, and perhaps, even colder.
“Curse the Queen!” Blackanvil allowed himself to mutter in the private safety of his cabin. It would be a dangerous thing to say such where other ponies might hear.
But it was how he felt anyway.
The discovery that brought them and many others before out here had been stupendous; so far as anypony could tell, the whole of the world was surrounded by some sort of spherical enclosure or shield, and that the sun, moon, and all the many hundreds of stars seen at night were merely being displayed on the underside of that great construction, like some vast cinema theater projection. It had only been thanks to the first winter arctic expeditions, some by land, and others by air, that the discovery had been made possible. The enclosure, as it turned out, was not complete. It ended precisely at, or more accurately above, eighty degrees north latitude, allowing the polar regions to experience the majesty of the real sky. The enclosure was never really visible as an object, but during the six months of arctic night the delineating arc of the polar hole was made plain as to the south the sky was speckled with merely a few hundred bright stars and the Moon was a plain cream-colored circle hovering, or appearing to hover, above the southern horizon. However, north of this line in the sky there were thousands, tens of thousands of stars that shown down in cold radiance with an infinity of different intensities and subtle variations in color. They even formed misty patterns, with a milky band low to the horizon, and only visible when near the actual pole itself, that, if it was truly composed of individual stars, must number in the many millions.
In the six months of daylight when no stars were visible the Sun certainly was, and what a sun! it was both larger and brighter than the ‘Sun’ in the skies over Unicornia, though due to the high latitude, never seemed to produce the heat it seemed it should. If that were not enough, a pair of small moons, apparently in orbit about each other, underwent a phase cycle of just under fourteen days, whereas ‘The Moon’ went through its phases in a little over twenty-seven days. Telescopes brought up from the kingdom had shown that these moons, instead of being nearly featureless, were covered in vast plains and mountain ranges, most of them circular, and accompanied by a myriad of craters of all sizes.
It would have taken the magicians and scholars of Unicornia much longer, and with much greater debate, to decide on what was actually being observed, if this exact information, in addition to detailed descriptions as to the physical dimensions and basic nature of the enclosure, was not already present in a number of ancient texts. These had been summarily ignored and had been given over to being fiction for as long as anypony could remember. The proof of the discovery had been quite a blow to the large teams of specially trained wizards who had been tasked with raising and lowering the sun and moon each night for generations. After all, who couldn’t feel their self-importance greatly diminished upon finding out that the huge Celestial object that was thought to be moved by their power through the sky was shown to be nothing but a projection of light?
All of this upheaval had begun forty-four years previous and the nearly one hundred expeditions which had followed the widely derided accounts of that first team of explorers had added little to the knowledge already gained.
It was for this reason above any other that annoyed and frustrated Blackanvil. If the previous ninety-seven expeditions had added little if any knowledge to the nature of the object that surrounded the majority of the world, what made the Queen think that this, the nighty eighth, would be any different.
With these aggravations clanking about in his head, Commodore Blackanvil drew in a deep breath and prepared to venture out across the top deck to insure that all was well there and then spend a few hours’ duty in the bridge. It was something of a mental struggle to drag himself away from the wonderfully hot iron stove built into the wall of the central room of the four that comprised his quarters. In fact, it was just about the only space that could be arguably defined as being a proper living room in the whole two hundred and thirty-meter length of the Intrepid. Privileges of rank and all that.
A glow from his horn and a fine brown woolen parka and boots were put on, along with his dark green Commodore’s hat. The stiff felt of the hat made it stand proud but did little good in the way of insulation leaving his head perpetually cold no matter how many other wraps he put on. Of course, he could find a warmer hat to wear, but in his view some visible sign of rank was important no matter how far from civilization they were.
Emerging from his cabin he took an immediate left turn towards the nearest stairway in that direction which would lead to the open top of the airship a single level above. A right turn from his cabin would take him to the bridge, not twenty paces away, but despite the cold and the wind he wanted a few moments out in the clean air to clear his mind for another day of flight. These lone morning excursions were important as they usually presented to him a chance to remind himself of the great responsibility the Queen had placed on him and the grandeur of any mission, no matter how seemingly unnecessary, that was arrived at simply by being undertaken by this, the single largest airship yet built.
Lifting up the heavy iron lever and swinging open the thick door at the top of the stairs put Blackanvil face to face with a swirling grey wall of cloud. Grinding his teeth together he stepped through the doorway anyway and shut it behind him. This cloud of fine ice particles with an occasional snowflake for variety’s sake was an almost perfect match in color to the Commodore’s grey fur speckled with white. If it wasn’t for the tan and brown winter wear he had on, Blackanvil might have well been invisible.
‘No chance of a view today either.’ Blackanvil thought to himself in frustration.
For three days now they had been sailing through these heavy gray clouds. The clouds were thick and the airship couldn’t fly high enough to cruse above them, only the pegasi scouts they had on board could do that, and with great difficulty. Of course, it was much easier to fly lower, but as the clouds were usually no more than five hundred meters above the ground surface and there were a number of low mountain ridges in the area easily three times that height, such a maneuver was ill advised at best. So, until the aggravatingly persistent clouds dissipated or moved on, they were stuck at this altitude.
As was his habit, Blackanvil strode off from his position near the front center of the airship over to the port side. When he got there, head held low against the stiff wind caused by their current forward progress of thirty kilometers per hour, he peered through the swirling ice particles at the hazy outlines of one of the eight massive engine nacelles, four to a side, held twenty meters off from the curving iron hull by a network of thick iron struts. An enclosed maintenance walkway worked its way through the center of the confusion of angled beams. The deep thrumming of the exceptionally powerful engine and its blades could be felt vibrating its way through the deck and the air, then just as easily through his body. Though he would never outwardly admit it, Blackanvil always felt like a foal again, staring in awe at the monstrous energies required to keep over sixty thousand tons of iron up in the air.
Of course, as to what thoes energies actually were, few could guess. The core of each great turbine was composed of the crystal material that had been found in the northern equestrian plains to the northeast of the Kingdom of Unicornia. The royal high mages had spent centuries studying and delicately manipulating the crystal fragments to do many things, some useful, and some incomprehensible. It was said that the crystals could theoretically be coaxed into becoming or doing just about anything if only the user knew how to properly guide the material. Alas, only a few applications had been proven to be useful so far. Fortunately for the Royal Navy one of thoes had been the ability to take in common substances such as air or water and produce a monumental amount of energy in the process. The best the high mages had been able to discern when in communion with the magical crystalline machinery they had coaxed into being was that the crystals were producing power at their core in the same way that the sun did. As to what powered the sun though…well, perhaps that would be discovered in time.
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Multiple objects detected
RA: 17 43 22.8665
DEC: +38 01 57.0982
On approach vector
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Finally turning himself from the great engine housing with its rapidly spinning ceramic blades, Blackanvil trotted along the deck railing past a second great engine nacelle until he came to the base of a watch tower where, presumably, an officer of the watch was on duty.
“Lieutenant!” the Commodore called up, seeing nopony visible through the watchtower’s forward window, and hoped his voice carried through the wind
Grumbling under his breath Blackanvil began towards the tower’s base where there were stairs leading up to a hatch in its underside when the startled face of the lieutenant popped up and gazed down in consternation.
“Here sir!” the pony called down hurriedly while adjusting his cap over his ears.
“All is well on watch!” he quickly added.
“I’m sure it is lieutenant, and thank you.” Blackanvil replied contentedly looking up at a much relieved and somewhat surprised junior officer from where he had stopped.
Turning to go he called back over his shoulder. “Oh, and lieutenant?”
“Yes Sir? Um, Commodore?”
“If I ever catch you sleeping on duty again, I will personally see to it that you are demoted down to Airman’s Assistant and never rise again beyond that rank even if you live for two hundred years. Am I to be understood?”
“Y-Yes Commodore! Perfectly Commodore!” The lieutenant yelled out while snapping a perfect salute from where he stood, now very alert, in the watchtower cabin.
Trotting off further down along the ship’s deck, Blackanvil was privately a little sympathetic for the poor stallion, it must be terribly dull to be up there for hours in the early morning with only frozen mist and snow flurries to watch. But what was he doing on this ship, if not to keep it running smoothly, a task that could only be accomplished by a crew that was kept well in line.
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No Response received
Objects resemble previously catalogued type
Von-Newman replicator machinery
Previous in system contact 114,559 years ago
Last known origin: Lalande 21185 system
Technology: Human derived
Regular physical geometry
3,048 separate objects identified, sizes various
Hostility assumption positive
Engaging planetary defenses
Objects returning fire
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An investigation of several other watchtowers and the small fleet of locked down aircraft being stored behind the flight control tower fortunately revealed no more sleeping crewman. Or, at least none so foolish as to do so where he might easily find them. Even after examining the anchors for the plane’s tether cables and the condition of the landing gear, a job that he was about four levels of rank too high to supposedly care about he still found himself bracing against the ever-blowing wind and ice particles enjoying himself. Just him and his ship. The planes were awfully beautiful to look at in his opinion, sleek bi-wings made of a light timber and covered with sheets of canvas painted a sparkling silver color to prevent the infiltration of water. Thirty-six of them were tied down to the aft deck in three rows of twelve each. There were days when Blackanvil wished he were simply lord and commander over one of thoes instead of being a glorified babysitter to over a thousand crew. The vast majority of whom were currently below decks. Perhaps a more intelligent position than his own at present mused Blackanvil to himself.
“Ah well, an old pony can dream.” He sighed to himself out loud with only the gusting wind to hear.
Spying a group of four ensigns emerging onto the deck from the base of the flight tower about thirty meters from where he stood, Blackanvil spied an excuse to stay out on deck and away from the bridge for a few more minutes while making general progress in the direction he really ought to be going in by now, namely to his duty.
“Let’s see if this lot have anything to say about thoes odd rumors pertaining to the-“
Blackanvil’s mumbled words to himself died on his tongue as the sun seemed to begin to find a weakness in the clouds and glow brightly through. A second later he knew that was impossible. It was still early morning and they were traveling due north. The sun, or what pretended to be the sun on the underside of the enclosure would just be above the eastern horizon, likewise the true sun, if indeed they were close enough to the edge of the polar hole of the enclosure, would be in a similar position. It really was a strange sight to see both suns in the sky at once like that, though the artificial one seemed distorted and off angle, an odd effect that became more pronounced the further north one traveled. But this light was high up and to the west, an impossible direction. Worse yet, it was growing much brighter, rapidly.
“What in the name of…!” Blackanvil exclaimed, holding a hoof over his eyes.
The light was now brighter than the sun ever had been and still growing. Presently, he became aware that he no longer felt the cold bite of the wind, in fact it was growing quite hot, and all that heat was flooding out from the piercing glare to the west. Squinting around in disbelief he saw every surface of the airship, every deckplate, cable, railing, and object begin to steam in the heat as the snow and ice that had accumulated on thoes surfaces started to evaporate as though a great oven had been opened next to the ship.
Suddenly fearing the still increasing illumination would begin to burn him, an impossible thought just ten seconds ago, Blackanvil ran as fast as possible to the tethered aircraft just behind him. Diving into the protective shade under the nearest of the planes it occurred to him that, if the heat grew intense enough the planes could catch fire, though the more cruelly logical part of his mind noted that such a temperature would boil him in hot air before flaming planes would get to him.
As a since of panic, an emotion he hadn’t felt in a good eighty years began to threaten, the light started to dim just as swiftly as it had appeared. And the heat from the light, as intense as standing near a roaring bonfire, began to fade allowing, if not chilly, at least not so hot air to return.
However, not all returned to the way it had been previously. With wide shocked eyes, Blackanvil looked out across a hundred kilometers of clear sky and arctic landscape in every direction. Not a trace of the endless, oppressive, cloud cover remained.
Peering in the direction the light had come from, he could make out a faint glowing yellow oval in the sky, a circle he realized, seen from off angle. And then the understanding of what he was seeing hit him. A great hole had just been made in the material of the enclosure, but if, according to the ancient manuscripts, the enclosure was a constant five hundred kilometers above the world’s surface, and the hole was halfway between zenith and horizon, then it must have been well over fifty kilometers in diameter, vast enough that the entire city of Unicornia with all its outlying towns and villages plus several of the neighboring mountain valleys could be comfortably fit inside. And this hole had been made in seconds.
All of a sudden the sixty-two thousand tons of iron that he commanded didn't seem quite as imposing as it had a minute ago.
All the while he was running as fast as his old legs could carry him towards the front of the airship and its bridge he was waiting for the sound to arrive, a stupendous thunderclap it would surely be, would it rupture his ear drums? Would he be deaf the rest of his life? Perhaps he really ought to take the extra few seconds to get below decks so the sound would not be so damaging. Nearing the bridge at last it occurred to him that as the atmosphere only really went up for a hundred kilometers, or so the pegasai said, then the monumental detonation would have occurred in vacuum and not a sound would ever be heard from it. A strange thought that.
Just as he burst through the rear doors to the bridge, a large chamber with a forward wall made of thick, clear glass panes, and a semi-circle of officers at various systems control stations, a searing line of violet tinted light appeared for an instant directly in front of the airship. As he was blinking tears from his eyes and doing what he could to rid himself of the afterimage he noted that the strike, for that's what he determined it had been, like a bolt of lightning, but perfectly straight, had not occurred immediately in front of the Intrepid like he had first thought. In fact, it had struck a ridge of tall hills some twenty kilometers distant. Where the impact had occurred was still obscured by a roiling cloud of steam and dust billowing out across the landscape and great chunks of rock which from this distance appeared as black specks, but surly were the size of large houses, were tracing lazy arcs as they tumbled through the air. Some of them were glowing a dull red on one side or the other, apparently having been partially melted by the blast. When these crashed back to the ground they heaved up their own spray of debris along with a shower of glowing fragments. True bolts of lightning crackled between parts of the dirty cloud rolling across the landscape, now a ring nearly a kilometer high and five wide.
This time there was a sound. An almighty crash that made the whole ship shudder and every officer instinctively duck their heads in reflex. Just as he was getting over the shock of the sight a second great beam struck the ground somewhat farther away and towards the east. This time the flash was not so intense as to prevent him from catching sight of a thin conical distortion wave ripple out through the air, centered on where the beam had come down. It was the shockwave he knew.
Before the thunder of this impact had reached them a third violet beam struck near the top of a somewhat higher mountain than most and for a few minutes made it look all the world like an erupting volcano with a great plume of dirty steam and a cascade of glowing boulders raining down across its slopes. The low growing green tundra plants burst into short lived flame for kilometers around each beam strike from the tremendous heat input.
Looking up through the glass canopy of the bridge, Blackanvil could see that right at this moment they were passing below the rim of the enclosure. It was not usually an easy thing to see, obscured as it was by the blue haze of the atmosphere, but the low angle of the light from the true sun was glinting off the apparently polished edge of the hole and shining back at him like a thin curved band of rosy light seeming to float in the middle of the sky.