By Nicholas Wansbutter
"Permission to enter, Captain?"
Dmitri stepped into the captain's personal quarters and pulled the door closed. It was his first time in the cabin, despite being executive officer of the ISS Admiral Kolchak for two weeks now. He'd replaced the regular XO mere days before launch due to sudden illness.
Captain Kirilov sat the work station at the end of the room, positioned perpendicular to Dmitri standing just inside the door. The captain sat on one of two chairs, where the bed would normally be, though this was folded into the wall. From the bottom of the bed a chessboard-sized table extended across the captain's knees. Running along the wall from the captain to Dmitri's right was a work station sandwiched between wood cabinetry. On this a computer screen displayed schematics and a samovar gurgled softly at Dmitri's elbow. The only other sound aside from the omnipresent hum of the engines and whisper of the air circulation, was the scratch of the captain's old-style fountain pen on the rough paper of a ledger. The captain did not look up from his work.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Dmitri ventured.
"You were not at Mass this morning." The captain still did not look up.
"Yes, sir, but there was --"
"No, soul is not secondary. Good example to crew is not secondary. Take tea, and sit."
Next to the samovar were were cups and saucers, sitting in front of an icon of Our Lady of Good Success. Rather western, Dmitri thought, then shrugged. He poured his tea and sat on the only other seat in the room, kitty-corner to the captain's. After another minute of writing, the captain put the lid on his pen and placed it precisely against the wall.
"Dobre." He closed the ledger and looked up at Dmitri. The XO resisted the urge to shift uncomfortably as his commander's steely grey eyes seemed to bore into his very soul. Captain Kirilov was known for that penetrating stare of his as much as for his religious stringency that even in the Astrogator's Guild was legendary. "You noticed Our Lady of Good Success."
The Old Man missed nothing. "Yes, sir."
"Colonel Konstantinov took icon of Her with him aboard Tsar Nicholas II. Now we take her with us to depths of space. Lomonosov FTL drive still working?"
Obviously it was, but Kirilov was also know for being reactionary. Dmitri knew this was a veiled barb directed at the new drive they were testing which replaced the Angelikovo Drive that had taken the Lepanto to Proxima Centauri five years previous.
"It's working perfectly, captain. We exceeded an equivalent of eight-times light with no time dilation detected. Last clock synchronisation with Baikonur registered no discrepancies."
Kirilov grunted. "We see if it holds up over longer course."
As if on cue, the background hum of the engine dipped sharply in pitch and the two officers lurched towards the fore of the ship as the inertial commentators struggled to cope with a sudden change in speed. An alarm hooted and Captain Kirilov flicked-on the screen above his desk.
"This is Captain -- report."
The bespectacled visage of the navigator, Lt. Artem Fournier filled the screen. "Captain, as you know the computer is programmed to decelerate the Kolchak under certain conditions. It would seem that such conditions have revealed themselves."
"Instead of telling me what I already know, tell me what I do not, Fournier."
"Ah, but of course, sir. It would seem that an unidentified, but almost certainly man-made object has been detected. We will have overshot it by some thousands of kilometres by the time we have completed deceleration, but --"
"I return to command deck. Erlomov."
It took another hour to turn the Kolchak around and move to intercept the object at a slower speed. It was, indeed, a "man-made object" as Fournier had predicted -- a space craft, though clearly not one belonging to any current space-faring nation. It was a long, skinny design with what appeared to be a crew module at one end, with a long latticework of thin metal terminating in a cluster of large spheres surrounding an engine. The Kolchak had matched speeds with it and now coasted parallel to it at just under .03 light speed. Her crew was gathered on the command deck around Captain Kirilov's chair, peering at it through the viewports.
"Given our current location and current speed," Lt. Fournier ventured, "it would seem that this vessel was launched somewhere around a hundred years ago. Could it be a United Earth ship?"
"Or maybe the Han script written all over it, and the big United Earth flag are just a disguise?" Able Starman Dąbrowski muttered around a mouthful of saurkraut. The engineering tech doubled as ship's cook -- and a fantastic cook he was, which was why the captain put up with his sarcasm and lack of decorum. And he hauled me on into his cabin to complain about missing daily Mass, Dmitri thought. Well, a good cook like that was worth more than his weight in gold on a long haul like this.
"If it slowed, it could be more recent launch from Mars," the captain said, rubbing his lantern jaw.
"Begging your pardon, sir," Dmitri said, "But the Martians have better tech than that now. That engine appears to be a fusion system. Though we've detected no launches from Mars, surely they, too, have access to anti-matter and anti-dilation fields."
The captain grunted again. "True: they are good at espionage. Is there any crew on ship?"
The science officer, Ludwig Wagner, shook his head. "I can't, sir. The bioscanner seems to be malfunctioning -- it picks up nothing, not even on our own ship."
"So, we do it the way God intended -- with actual cosmonauts doing cosmonaut work. Commander Erlomov," the Captain said to Dmitri. "You lead landing party. Take Fournier."
"Aye, Captain." Dmitri stood and nodded to the navigations officer.
"Dąbrowski, you too. Break out weapons."
"Tak, Kapitan," the swarthy Pole said, sketching a two-fingered salute. "Although visiting a United Earth ship I can hardly see why. Shall we take oxygen as well?"
Stay tuned for the next installment of this story in two weeks' time (I hope) ...