Captain James Cutter hated cryostasis revival.
Coughing, he pushed himself into a seated position.
“S-status,” he coughed.
“All systems normal,” Serena said, her avatar appearing on a nearby holographic plinth, “However, reserves of reactor fuel are running dangerously low. I’ve already scavenged additional tritium and deuterium from the base-building supplies, but that’s only a stopgap measure.”
“Serena, how long has it been?”
“U-uh,” the AI stammered, something Cutter had never seen before, in any AI.
“Serena?” he asked, his tone firm, “How long.”
“Ninteen years, ten months, five days,” Serena said reluctantly.
Cutter blinked, then frowned.
“How are you still online?” he asked, “The lifespan of a Smart AI is only seven years. You had already been installed on the Spirit of Fire for two years before we found that artefact on Harvest.”
“When I was nearing the end of my operational lifespan, I activated our backup AI, Moreta. When I explained the situation, she immediately did something I didn’t expect.”
Cutter nodded at the mention of activating their second AI; the Phoenix-class colony ships were always fitted with two AIs, one (usually a Smart AI) active, the other (usually a standard “Dumb” AI) as a backup. Moreta was a “Dumb” AI, with her capabilities focussed on running a converted Phoenix-class vessel.
“What did she do?” he asked.
“She entered my processor matrix and began repairing and purging damaged or corrupted code,” Serena said, “I was not told she had been given this capability.”
“I wasn’t told either,” Cutter said, frowning, “Moreta has been installed aboard the Spirit since she was refitted. Is it possible she discovered the method on her own from watching the previous AIs?”
Serena was silent for a moment, processing this.
“That’s possible,” she admitted, “I haven’t pressed.”
Even “dumb” AIs could develop prickly tempers when they got older. Serena had likely deemed it too much of a risk to ask further than she already had.
Serena’s hand suddenly went up to her forehead, something she always did when her attention was focussed on the Spirit’s sensors.
“Captain, something just appeared on sensors. Large object, far too symmetrical to be natural, approaching on a straight course. Calculating… the object will pass directly alongside us. But it’s not an intercept trajectory.”
“Is the silhouette matching with anything in the database?” Cutter asked, even as he pulled on his uniform, “Is it possible it’s Covenant coming in for a broadside?”
“That’s just it. It’s on a docking trajectory, and the design style does not seem to match known Covenant architecture. Too linear.”
She pulled it up on a screen, showing Cutter the object’s silhouette. It was sleek, angular, and predatory, not the curving sea-creature lines used by the Covenant.
Cutter paused, holding his hat in one hand.
“One second, it’s just coming into range now… Hmmm, results are a little odd… I don’t recognise the material it’s made from, but it’s definitely not Covenant. It also isn’t human as far as I can tell.”
First Contact, Cutter thought, a thrill of mixed dread and excitement racing through him.
The unidentified ship had slowed as it approached, and was now moving at a crawl, relative to the Spirit, and they could now see more details. The vessel carried a large spinal gun, similar to the UNSC’s ship design philosophy, but rather than focus entirely on missiles as secondary weapons, there were a number of turrets mounted across its hull. There were still recognisable missile tubes mounted, however, and a large number of CIWS weapons.
It was also fitted with massive twin engines for main thrust, although they were currently in what appeared to be idle state.
“The unknown is matching velocity,” Serena reported to the bridge crew; although it had been moving at a high relative velocity when it had first appeared on sensors, that distance was actually a very long way, and it had decelerated quite rapidly after appearing. This had given the crew enough time to be revived from cryostasis and be brought up to speed.
They had hailed the unknown several times, and gotten indecipherable responses back; they did not know each others’ languages, and exchanges of binary were ongoing… and slow.
“Unknown has released several objects. Scanning,” Serena said, a frown appearing, “They appear to be humanoid, winged beings encased in an armoured environment suit. I-.”
She didn’t get time to speak further; one of them had flown up to the bridge windows, and was now looking in at them. Although the nose of the being was hidden beneath armour, the visor was made of a clear material that had silvered slightly as it approached, but had cleared; dynamic tinting. A pair of somewhat reptilian gold eyes looked at them from behind the angled visor. It appeared to have frilled ears, and a pair of short, back-swept horns, while an antenna poked up from its left ear.
A puff of thrusters pushed it closer, and it pressed a gauntleted hand against the glass that separated the Bridge from space.
The gesture seemed benign enough, so Cutter stepped up to the viewport and pressed his hand against it, directly opposite the alien’s own hand.
No one, not even Serena, who was recording the event permanently into data crystal, could possibly have known just how this moment would change the course of the war.
Humanity had just encountered a race not only capable of helping them win against the Covenant, but willing to do so.
The Covenant wouldn’t know what hit them.