"What the actual motherfucking hell?" Celia's voice was low and furious, audible to Caden's implant alone. Linked into the Ultima Ratio's net, he could see everything she saw as they neared the source of the emergency beacon: the station in orbit around Ganymede, the elaborate alloy cage extending out from it, and the almost-complete outline of a massive warship inside it.
"Well," he responded wordlessly, "the scan wasn't wrong."
Celia sent back a pulse of pure, wry amusement even as she composed a status report: "Majesty of Earth, we confirm potential capital ship in dock at station Hirakawa's Celestial Triumph. Advise you pull back to maximum safe contact distance at this time. Continuing our approach."
"Admiral Battuta to Ultima Ratio, understand potential ambush Hirakawa paracorporation. Withdrawing to maximum safe contact distance this time. Proceed with all caution."
Maximum safe contact was not even remotely the maximum distance possible here in empty space, where the two ships communicated with low-energy laser pulses to avoid any possibility of interception. It was entirely arbitrary, the point at which even light took a full thirty seconds to pass from the Ultima Ratio to the Majesty, or vice versa. It was a distance at which the Majesty could no longer respond effectively to any problems they encountered, but could be notified relatively quickly of any unfolding disaster.
The arrangement was deliberate. The Majesty carried a dozen long-range guns and a network of smaller point-defense cannons, but it wasn't a warship. It was designed for different purposes. Ultima Ratio, for all that it carried only a crew of twenty and Caden's squad of twelve, was a warship in every sense of the word, and nothing more.
"Advise you keep the shields up, Ultima," Caden pulsed along the command channel. "We'll launch through them, staggered one."
"Concur," pulsed back Celia, a flood of secondary orders spreading fractally through the shipnet from that decision. "Proceed."
Caden was already calling a launch order to his crew. He ran one last check of his systems, then detached his raptor from the Ultima Ratio and let it drift out of the launch bay and through the particle shield. It was always nerve-racking, that moment of enforced vulnerablility: if the ship were attacked now, he would be instantly destroyed. But if they didn't take the risk, they could only wait behind the field and share whatever fate the Ultima Ratio could forge for herself; they couldn't contribute to the battle. One by one, the rest of his crew followed him out.
"Wide Ring," he pulsed, and they began to arrange themselves in a broad circle around the Ultima Ratio.
If this wasn't some sort of trap, then some Hirakawa tech had made a terrible mistake in activating the emergency beacon. The base itself wasn't an issue; all of the paracorporations and most of the planetary governments maintained research stations in out-of-the-way locations; putting one in orbit around Ganymede was extreme but not illegal. The ship in the cradle, on the other hand, was nearly a quarter of the size of the Majesty, and violated at least half a dozen major treaties. The profusion and scale of its armaments made it very nearly a war crime.
"Signal incoming," said Drake, who was monitoring outside communications. "Originates with the ship, not the station." His voice went briefly fuzzy, and then the message came across shipnet to their implants:
"Attention approaching vessel: disregard beacon and turn back. Repeat, disregard beacon and turn back. Ship's reactor compromised, explosion eminent. Withdraw to safe distance now. There are no survivors. Repeat, pull back to safe distance now. This message is an automated recording."
"Well, that's..." someone started to say. Celia cut them off: "Scanners are detecting no unusual radiation, nothing that would indicate a meltdown or even a leak."
"Message has looped and is repeating," said Drake.
"Someone," said Caden, as he eased his raptor further away from the Ultima, "doesn't want us to board them."