The raptors were a string of obsidian arrowheads, sparkling with small bursts of thrust as they spiraled in towards the capital ship. "Four of three," broadcast Caden and watched as their line staggered out and fell apart, separating their approach.
Nothing moved on the station, or on the surface of the capital ship. The Ultima Ratio was coming in behind them, shields up and weapons at the ready, but Caden didn't believe that her presence kept the unfinished capital ship quiescent. It looked too close to completion for that: systems in place, weapons powered, quarters ready to be crewed. If it considered them a threat or intended to assault the Majesty of Earth, it should have been doing something. Even its shields were down.
They were silent for a few seconds as the raptors spread out in trios and their sensors explored the surface of the capital ship.
"I mark eight one-person maintenance airlocks, four connecting airlocks, and a main docking bay on the capital ship. Two primary airlocks and four maintenance airlocks on the station." Nobody pulsed back a correction, which meant that they were seeing the same things that Caden was. "Docking bay has an atmosphere shield in place, but the gate is open."
"Confirm, sir," pulsed back Padma, who had taken her trio past the front of the capital ship and then looped around the station. Caden was vaguely aware of the slender triangles of the raptors passing between the alloy ribs that encased the capital ship; his attention was more on what they were picking up, the map that was coalescing in his implant. Padma continued; she had always shared something of his sense of humor. "Capital ship warning us away is open, while station requesting help is sealed."
Caden bundled the new information and pulsed it back to the Ultima Ratio.
"The capital ship's the one that spoke up as we approached," said Drake, pulsing back from the Ultima. "They may want us to go away, but there are definitely people there. No further contact from the station."
"Concur," said Celia, and Caden knew that she was not only targeting but warming her weapons up to fire. Facing a ship like this she would be well within her legal rights, but Caden pulsed her a private message: "Hold, tenth stan."
Celia pulsed back: "Holding."
Apparently at her order, Drake broadcast: "Capital ship and station crew: if evacuation is needed, please gather in cargo bay of capital ship or main airlocks of station. Raptors are inbound and shuttles will be provided."
There was a long, empty moment as Caden and his team continued their approach and the beacons continued their conflicting messages. Then the same voice that had warned them away came on the broadcast again, re-transmitted by Drake: "Approaching ships, do not make contact. Repeat, do not make contact. Station is compromised and Ascendancy may be as well. Forget the beacon; pull back and destroy us from a safe distance. Hirakawa's Ninety-Fifty, out."
Caden cursed to himself. The broadcast he'd just heard made its own advice impossible under panhuman law. If this is a trap, it's the best and most convincing I've ever seen. He kept that thought to himself as well, because it didn't change anything. If there were people alive and a rescue was possible, they had to make the attempt.
Akira pulsed him a half-formed query, the emotional equivalent of Should I? Caden sent back a nod.
"Hirakawa's Ninety-Fifty," Akira broadcast, "We are inbound at this time in accordance with the Treaties. Please advise on what we should expect and how we can best assist."