"All crew, be advised we are approaching Clarion," head secretary Calvin Campbell announced through the Excalibur's speaker system.
"This is it." Rolland Barron stood from his seat on the Captain's chair, turning to look across the command deck. "Time to say 'hi'." He gave a wry smile to the officers on deck.
"Now entering the scanner range," Chief Navigator Megan MacLeod announced.
"Nothing on comms," Communiations Specialist Catrina Rennard reported from her station.
"What about LDs?" Rolland looked to Technical Sergeant Eduard Titus.
"Not yet," Titus answered. "But I'm working on it."
Victor Underwood, SCFC Technician, turned from his console towards Rolland. "Could be a calibration issue. I can cycle through possible signatures."
Rolland nodded. "Give it a try."
The entrance door to the command deck slid open. Jordan Rattan, the Compliance Officer, walked briskly inside. "I got here as fast as I could."
"Not a problem," Rolland replied with a smile.
"I'm picking up the fleet around Clarion," Victor announced.
"Give us a visual," Rolland ordered.
Victor Underwood tapped in the command. The front viewscreen blinked to reveal a featureless sphere, surrounded by a mass of red blips.
"How many ships are we looking at?" Rolland kept his eyes on the display.
"More than a hundred," Victor replied. "I'll work on the detail."
The image morphed with the integration of incoming data. Mountains poked up from the smooth sphere in some places and valleys crinkled down into others, and the imposing flock of ships increased in resolution. Alongside the image, the tactical display blinked intermittently, cycling through vessels of the Catechumen fleet.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news -" Weapons Specialist Katherine Fisher swivelled from her console "- but that fleet could go toe to toe with the Federation."
"You're sure?" Rolland glanced to Fisher.
"Look at that ship -" Katherine nodded up to the viewscreen "- over two thousand kilometers across."
"That's bigger than the Fuchai." Keenan stared awestruck at the colossal vessel, much larger than the Federation's defensive flagship.
"That's the biggest -" Katherine Fisher motioned to the screen "- but not by much. And that fleet's got more than a hundred ships."
The crew stared in silentce at the immense armada of cross shaped vessels orbitting the former Clarion colony.
"How?" Rolland looked down from the screen towards Fisher. "How did they build all this?"
"Robots," Jordan Rattan interjected, his eyes locked on the Catechumen fleet.
"You think so?" Captain Barron asked.
"Yeah." Jordan nodded. "Automated manufacturing with self-replicating machines. They don't need to eat or sleep, and their numbers grow exponentially."
"We're getting a ping," Catrina Rennard reported.
"Put it through." Rolland faced the front viewscreen, hands clasped behind his back.
A robed figure appeared in place of the tactical scans. The bearded old man was cloaked in black and red fabric. He stood in a large room with walls of stained glass. The man spoke slowly: "I am Cardinal Abidan, Auditor of the Star Ship Testament. Please identify yourself, and state your purpose here."
Rolland looked over to Catrina. "Open the channel."
Before Catrina brought her hand to the console, Erin Locke stepped forwards to interrupt. "Captain," she interjected.
"Yes?" Rolland looked towards Erin.
"I believe I should make first contact. I'm trained for this."
"So am I." Rolland smiled. "I think I can handle it." He nodded to Catrina. She entered a command, opening the communications channel with an accompanying beep.
"This is Captain Rolland Barron of the Sol Federation Excalibur. We are here as a diplomatic envoy to the Catechumen."
"The Sol Federation?" Cardinal Abidan stroked his grey beard.
"Sol -" the Cardinal stared off into space briefly, then looked back towards Rolland through the viewscreen "- so you're from Earth?"
"Yes." Rolland nodded. "Well, most of the crew, anyway."
"Earth," the Cardinal repeated. "The cradle of humanity. The birthplace of our Lord."
"Err..." Rolland stumbled. "I suppose so, yes."
"Then this is a joyous occasion." Cardinal Abidan smiled. "But why, may I ask, have you come to us now?"
"We heard about the -" Rolland paused to search for a suitable word. "Dispute... Over the Clarion colony."