You gaze out through the panoramic window of the observation deck, past your own reflection, and take in the new starscape. Even though you knew what to expect, you're still captivated by the sight of the Milky Way in nearly all its entirety.
The sight stirs up a stronger version of what you felt when you first approached Tau Ceti; a combination of wonder and loneliness. Both are feelings you are accustomed to.
It's only been seven days since you left Lh'owon, time enough for you to rest and for your nerves to settle from the perpetual adrenaline rush of the battles you fought there. But already you're getting restless in anticipation of what you might find here at the edge of the galaxy.
You shift your attention to a nearby terminal as a transmission from Durandal comes in.
"You're standing above the remnants of an ancient civilization that was wiped off the map nearly a thousand years ago. I don't know whether their destruction was caused by war, or by some other means. Whatever it was, it was thorough. The planet's surface is now the galaxy's largest parking lot."
You look ahead towards the planet looming into view, trying to picture the desolation of an alien civilization, but it's impossible. The only image that comes to you is a ruined human colony.
"We are here in search of an ancient Jjaro artifact. I was hoping a geodynamic scan of the surface would detect it, but I was wrong. Fortunately, I've managed to find an underground facility which is still intact. I'm sending you there now to investigate."
Space folds inward, and your gut goes into freefall for one split second before reality unfolds back into its regular shape. You find yourself standing in a new location, one much darker than the ship you were on only seconds ago. As you make your way through dark, creaking corridors streaked with flickering lights, a sensation of déjà vu washes over you. You're surprised to see the alien architecture isn't so different from human-made space stations.
The harmonic drone of the underground installation is interrupted by a series of faint booming impacts, seeming to come from someplace far away and above you. It could just be a meteor shower, but you're already rushing to the nearest terminal. Before you reach it, unmistakable silhouettes unfold luminously all around you, crowding the previously empty hallway. You've hardly set foot in the place and the Pfhor are already here – and just when you were starting to think this might be your first peaceful excursion on an alien world!
Your reflexes kick in and you let your hands take over. The muzzle flash from your assault rifle transforms the darkness of the hallway into stroboscopic daylight. You tear into a cluster of Pfhor fighters, weaving your way through a barrage of hunter projectiles. Before the last of your shells ring against the floor, you draw your fusion gun and set your sights on the hunter. It isn't hard with the green flashes from his shoulder cannon broadcasting his position at intervals. You fire a quick volley, charging the final shot and backpedaling in anticipation of the intended result: the hunter explodes in a blinding flash of electricity that sends the remaining fighters reeling to their deaths. They've barely begun to twitch when you slide a fresh clip into your assault rifle.
As the gun smoke settles and embers from the hunter's attack dim in the wall, you hear another series of distant impacts. You notice one of your bullets has cracked the screen of the terminal, radiating in a cobweb pattern. You brush this observation aside. The thing still works, and that's all that matters right now.
"It looks like some of our old friends are here. A surviving Pfhor fleet from Lh'owon has tracked us all the way to our current location. Those explosions you just heard were the last of their ships plunging into the surface after I used their hulls for target practice.
"They must have conducted a scan similar to my own before attacking, because a large number of crew managed to teleport down to where you are. The group you just took down is only a small fraction of what my sensors are indicating.
"Since they've come all this way to see you, it would be rude not to give them the welcome they deserve."
You've never been entirely sure if Durandal actually understands you as well as he seems to, and this isn't the first time you've wondered if what goes on in that nexus of ones and zeros is so different from a nexus of neurons. Your thoughts quickly return to the slavers, and your trigger fingers itch to do more of what they do best.
"Survivors from multiple ships are scattered throughout the area. Take them down so we can explore the facility and search for clues."
After uncovering information that leads you closer to the mysterious artifact, you descend deeper into the facility, quelling wave after wave of Pfhor. You're still reflecting on the revelation of Durandal's last transmission, which came after he analyzed the data you gathered from several computer terminals.
The artifact is not buried underground as I suspected, but sealed within the rogue star this planet is orbiting. A gravitational displacement device is preventing the sun's core from collapsing the artifact.
The facility you're exploring is actually a buried Jjaro space station, equipped with a gravitational field generator. If you bring it back online, I should be able to use it to open a rift in the sun and retrieve our prize. In fact I suspect that's exactly what it was designed to do.
You're beginning to wonder what makes this artifact so important when you reach a junction leading to a broad, curved room disappearing into complete blackness. With a locked door to your left, you head in the opposite direction, identifying the room as part of the outer ring of a hub you saw on Durandal's map.
A stream of flaming rings blazes towards you from out of the darkness. You jerk back in time and they flutter by, scorching the wall bending back behind you and sending a hot flurry of embers near your right shoulder. You draw your twin shotguns, rush forward, and your hands begin turning the wheels of destruction. The rhythmic sound of your guns roars through the corridor as you close the gap between you and your attackers. The enforcers fall in droves. Their armor is no match for the alternating blasts of buckshot. You orbit the remaining groups, leaving shells and corpses in your wake.
When the battle is over, you race towards your objective, briefly checking to make sure you still have the uplink chip from Durandal.
The gravitational displacement device at the sun's core is not only the force protecting the artifact, but also the engine driving the star. Someone set it on its course nearly a thousand years ago.
I've marked the location of the station's control room on the map. Install the uplink chip there so I can gain remote access.
You move through the station's central chambers, clearing out the last survivors of the Pfhor crew as you go, and successfully reach the control room where you install the uplink chip. Almost immediately, the station comes alive. Bright lights flicker on everywhere, screens that were previously plates of black glass become vivid displays of graphs, charts, maps, and images. A deep rumble shakes the floor as some engine or other device turns on and gradually revs up to a higher speed.
You teleport again, only this time you see the Tuncer Mirage Effect not only across your own body, but on every single surface of the station. Also new to the experience is the fact that your surroundings remain the same after your vision rebounds back to normal. But what doesn't remain the same is gravity.
You float weightlessly and it dawns on you that the entire station must have been jumped into space. No stranger to zero gravity, you reach the nearest terminal with no problems, noticing one of the windows that previously had a wall of rock on the other side now has a view of intergalactic space. Durandal is already onscreen, ready to contact you.
"The rift has been closed, and I have the artifact safely onboard. You've done well, but this is only the beginning."
After teleporting for the third and final time, you find yourself once again standing onboard the Rozinante. You can only imagine where Durandal will take you next...