Chapter 11

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The Facem was frighteningly large. Somehow, George had failed to realize this on his first exposure to the starship. On his second look, it indeed stopped looking like a spacecraft at all. A better analog would be a great city, floating silently in the ink.

When he had first seen it, the Facem had been as new as any ship in the solar system, flawless down to the varnish. Its time in interstellar space had been hard on the starship, however. The colorful, painted hull was now streaked with charred lines and pits where impactors had vaporized against the ablative material. The heat shield at the bow, now folded back to allow the secondary engines to burn, was stained white. Perhaps most concerningly, several large cracks spanned the metal hulk of one of the engine units. Probably the intense heat of the annihilation reaction.

But still, the Facem was mostly intact. It could make another run if it wanted to.

George docked the shuttle without incident and retreated into the depths of the starship. Unsurprisingly, the interior was much less worn down than the hull. The walls and ceilings, indeed everything, were all still perfectly white, gleaming in the clean LED light as if they had been built yesterday. The bridge, too was in almost perfect condition, the same as it was that day almost six years ago.

George glanced at his assigned station, with its tiny screen and uncomfortable crash couch, and decided to use the admiral's chair instead. He sank into the veritable ocean of foam and waited for radio contact from the ground. George noticed with surprise and joy that the chair held a high-level pass card, probably the admiral's. Something to do later.

In the meantime, he decided to look through the ship's computer system. As an ensign, he had very little access, but it was enough for the time being.

George pulled up a schematic of the starship and studied it. The details eluded him, but the abundance of green color coding seemed to confirm that the Facem was in good shape. Looking more closely at the habitation module, he saw the cluster of towers that was the residential areas. They were largely uninteresting, a ring of tall structures filled with a honeycomb of small apartments. Just as George shifted his attention to another part of the ship, he noticed that one set of towers was not quite like the rest. There were four of them, all hollow and fitted with tanks of hypergolic rocket fuel. Well-hidden thrusters poked out of each corner of the towers, almost as if they were meant to act as separate spacecraft.

Before George could find anything else, a notification appeared on the screen obscuring the diagram. A very stern looking man scowled out at him and barked a greeting.

"Ensign Archer. This is Lieutenant Hernandez from Eridu Base. I have a list of tasks for you, which you should receive in the next few minutes. Report back to me once all are complete."

The face disappeared and a file appeared in its place. It was stamped and titled to look official, but it contained nothing but a short, bulleted list of commands. George saw mostly busywork, such as satellite data processing and the like, but there were some interesting points. Apparently, he was the only man authorized to handle direct comms from Earth, which was surprising.

Radio communications were not useful beyond a few million kilometers. At twenty light years, there would be nothing but static from even the best transmitters. Instead, a system of tiny probes was used to transfer information between the colony and Earth. Nothing but an RTG, an ion engine, and a radio antenna, they were very light and robust. Once launched, they would accelerate for years, and pass the solar system traveling at a fraction the speed of light. The probes would sail for the better part of three decades before finally coming into range. Slightly slower than radio, but much more effective across the enormous distances between the stars.

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