It was certainly rare for a comet to flyby the system on an intergalactic trajectory, but it wasn’t unheard of. Thus Baatar wasn’t frozen for too long in surprise before he threw his ship around to intercept and put his claim on the lump of ice. Not that a claim flag would necessarily prevent anyone else from coming for it. A comet, which even if resource-poor would be transporting several rare compounds that were increasingly unknown on the Motherworld, was a prize worth dying for.
It was just passing across the orbit of Planet Nine when he picked it out of the debris on his screens. His ship was bouncing around the inner asteroid belt, seeking out the smaller mineral deposits that were missed by scanners. About seven AUs and three months away by slingshot course. He programmed the computer to wake him up if another nomad contested his claim or altered course to intercept the comet within a fortnight of his own arrival, or when he himself was only five days out, and settled back into hibernation.
In the end it woke him up twice. The first time was a month out, when someone started making a beeline for the comet. The computer hadn’t predicted that they would do that – it had been the perfect distracting maneuver. Baatar cursed when he was that there was nothing he could do. He knew who the culprit was. There were few who were good enough to fool the computers, and fewer still who would do so in quite such a flashy fashion. Sukh didn’t reply to his waves for a week or so, though. Although he spent the whole time attempting to devise ways of pushing himself faster, at least arriving at the comet before Sukh had had a chance to push it off course, but it seemed impossible. Baater had been completely outplayed.
And then Sukh waved him back as he was staring in frustration at the numbers on the screen in front of him. “That’s my fucking comet,” he said at once, not giving the other a chance to start. “Get away from it. Can’t you see my flag?”
“You’re welcome to it,” said Sukh. That got Baatar’s attention. “Listen – I think we should leave this one. I’m getting some really weird signatures from it.”
Baatar laughed. “Nice try, Sukh. I’ll see you there.”
“Seriously Baatar, shut your wet mouth and listen! I’m seeing traces of processed metals under the service, stuff that shouldn’t be on a comet. Look yourself if you don’t believe me, but it’s strange. I think we should take this one to the Elders…”
“Goodbye, Sukh.” Baatar cut him off mid-sentence. He was mildly surprised when Sukh did in fact change course and seem to leave well enough alone. Surprised enough to run a sweep of his own, but from his angle he didn’t see anything odd. Baatar shrugged and fell back into sleep for the last week.
The second time was barely hours out from the comet, when someone initiated a hostile takeover of his systems. It was a non-standard virus. Some bastard had cooked up something new, but they’d clearly done it in a rush to try and keep him from the comet. It wasn’t suited to attack his system in the slightest. Baatar barely had to take an active hand in throwing the attack off. His computer dealt with most of it, and within an hour the battle was over.
He decided it wasn’t worth going back to sleep after that. He sat awake and angled the porthole so that he could watch for the comet to hove into sight. It finally appeared, thirty minutes out, glittering when he turned his searchlight on it. Bearing Sukh’s words in mind – Sukh was no idiot, even if he was a treasure thief – Baatar ran several more checks on the comet himself.
He finally saw what Sukh had seen as he finished his deceleration and matched his course to the comet’s. Shallowly embedded in the ice on one side there were heavy concentrations of aluminium and rare earths, nuclear fuel emissions, weak radio transmissions. By shining the light directly upon the strongest source of the signals he could just make out the shadow of something under the skin, perhaps ten metres across.
Baatar considered what to do for a day. Then he instructed his computer to replot their course, directing them into the orbit of the Motherworld and pushing the comet to abide with them. He should have reported it to the Elders, that was sure; an oddity such as this could only be artificial. But to broadcast such a discovery across the whole system – especially when he was a good four and a half months from the drop-off – was suicide. The price on new technology, whatever the thing might be, was too high for others to respect his claim. He would be dead long before he reached orbit and whoever managed to hold the comet against everyone else would turn it in for the reward. The only reason it needed to be reported was for quarantine. He could do that from far closer in-system when no one else could stop him.
He broadcast a standard claim instead, slightly underplaying the quality of the comet just in case, and crossed his fingers. He instructed his computer to wake him up when someone grew too close or one day from the Motherworld and returned to hibernation.
He never regained consciousness. The first attack had never seen his systems before, and was easily defeated. Its loss, the victor’s defences, and anything else it had managed to find out was referred straight back to the central source. Barely a week later the source flung out a second iteration. It managed to cut off the life support before the computer, just barely, brought it under control. A third iteration jumped from the second’s remnants to take complete command.
No one noticed. The comet held steadily on course. The Elders only suspected something was wrong as they watched Baatar’s ship follow the comet into its fiery descent onto the planet’s surface. They could do little about it. Soon they too were writhing in pain, suffocating in their capsules.
There was no reason for their assault. The virus had no mind, was sent with no intention; it was merely an insatiable hunger that spread on the solar wind.
Sukh, orbiting in the Bounding Cloud, did not know this. He gathered the remnants of his people, those far enough from the virus to avoid its icy touch, and together the nomads left their wanderings amidst the worlds and began their wanderings in the wilds between the stars.