After the upheavals on New Earth settle down, the team hears about a recently launched expedition to investigate the Artifact, a rumored alien ruin several star systems away. Steve Walmart urges the FSV Columbia to chase after them.
After leaving New Earth the Columbia passes through several systems uneventfully. The first jump takes them to Hermes, an impoverished mining system orbiting a red dwarf. The pass by, listening in on reports of bioroid revolts and social disorder as well as stories from a neighboring system called Persimmon. Supposedly this isolationist enclave are rumored to be clamping down on bioroid activity and shifting to an entirely AI workforce.
The next jump takes them to Steading, a small refueling and trading station orbiting a tiny red star. The extended family of former space gypsies who run the place tell them the expedition passed by recently. The next system over is Arcturus, a red giant with no real resources. The Artifact supposedly resides in the system after that.
They push on, past the edge of explored space.
Rho meanwhile feels a bit off. She visits Dr. Twitter Morgan in the new Med Bay. As the doctor analyzes her sickness, she gets worried. Rho has an alien virus, one that requires further study. she keeps Rho there while she consults with Dr. Albert Tzen-Babbage. Rho is left in the company of the partially constructed android torso for Lares 12.
Meanwhile the Columbia arrives at Arcturus. The blazing red giant fills the system with immense heat and radiation. But the Columbia’s sensors pick up a signal on an old Federation channel:
FSV Google: Lockdown Code Gamma, Medical Emergency Code 631
Max Petrobras conducts some further scans, revealing the wreck of the FSV Google, a Federation exploratory craft sent to the Kappa Sector 36 years ago. According to the records, the jump point for Kappa Sector was closed off, stranding the Google.
Lockdown Code Gamma means that mission files are all under executive seal. Only an Executive Officer of the Federation can unlock them and only in person. Medical Emergency Code 631 indicates a biological contagion of unknown origin.
The Columbia attempts to hail it but gets no response. Scans however reveal that the Google is intact with a working power plant but no gravity.
Rho meanwhile learns about the discovery of the Google and makes movements to get involved. Twitter gives her a shot to treat the symptoms but let her go. Analysis of the virus shows it can only effect a small percentage of humanity. The few crew members who share her particular genetic pattern have been confined to quarters.
Up on the bridge, Captain G. W. Teregan points out to Steve that regulations forbid bringing a Federation craft into such a hostile environment, especially given the risk of biological contamination. She will however allow a shuttle to be taken and she can ensure they will have enough time to investigate and retrieve any information on board.
A short time later, the First Contact Team meets in the briefing room. The captain outlines the available information, including the roster of people who were on board when the Google left. She points out Benjamin Roux and notes that his nephew Ensign Thomas Roux would like to be involved. Steve questions bringing him along but become convinced when his EVA experience is revealed. He does ask to talk to him beforehand.
Plans are made to bring the Columbia within 20 AU and then send the shuttle. They will rendezvous on the far side of the system near the jump point.
Max readies some devices for the trip and Rho focuses on getting well. Steve talks to Ensign roux and makes it clear they are not going to find anything nice over there. The Ensign seems determined though. Steve then asks him to help him with his own EVA training.
A couple hours later they take a transport shuttle to the Google. Along the way, Max detect a Space Gypsy craft attached to the hull. The Federation craft hails them and tries to dissuade the scavengers on board. The spacers however claim right to salvage, speaking a dialect that only Steve recognizes. Steve tries to keep them on the line but eventually they cut off.
They dock their shuttle at the empty shuttle port. The doors are sealed shut but Rho is able to force them open. Meanwhile Max interrogates the ship’s AI, Lori. The buggy AI resists her attempts to gain access to the ship, ultimately deleting herself from this section to protect her core code. Max is however able to determine that her mission is to keep the crew contained and everyone else out.
Once inside, Max releases some robotic scouts the size of Frisbees into the ship, which scan as they go.The first room is warm and dark, covered in dirty from which spring numerous mushrooms. Moving deeper they find sections filled with debris, wiring torn out of walls and hash marks scratched into steel. There is plenty of deliberate damage but very little scavenging.
Rho and Roux go on ahead taking pictures and looking for a way to the bridge or server room. Rho sees something for a second as she takes a picture. It was man shaped and quick.
Then something grabs Ensign Roux, dragging him into the darkness with a cutoff scream.
Rho is quickly joined by the others but the Ensign is gone. Scans show him alive but elsewhere on ship. After some searching they find a vent.
Max send one of the scouts down the long thin tube, barely wide enough for a person. It leads to a larger room and then to a room covered in dim monitors and scientific notes. Ensign Roux is on a table. Then something destroys the probe.
Babbage is particular excited about the displays. They showed signs of an alien life form. Max meanwhile hacks another part of Lori, trying to get another door open. Along the way he retrieves a list of the crew including when they died. 5 of them died at the same time with the others perishing over the course of a week. But Benjamin Roux is listed as still alive.
The next door hisses open, revealing a room strew with broken lab equipment and shards of glass. As the team moves forward a group of spacer enters. Their legs have been modified into a second set of arms. Both sets are armed with guns. As a tense standoff begins, Steve alludes to the ship being haunted. Max meanwhile arranges for a gentle breeze to push the glass shards closer to them. The team also notice that the spacers look somewhat ill. Fearful and outnumbered, the scavengers leave.
With that threat seen off, the team decides to go after Roux and his uncle. Rho leads the crawl through the vent.
Halfway down, something detaches from a wall and attacks her. Rho instinctively beats it off and the mutated thing that was Dr. Roux flies down the vent into some jagged metal. Then just as suddenly he is gone. Rho brushes herself off and continues on.
The next room is uninhabited, strewn with wreckage and little else. A room off of it reveals a large overgrown and mutated grow room;. another doorway leads to the med bay where Ensign Roux lies unconscious strapped to a table. On the walls and displays are copious notes on an alien disease. Babbage pours over them enthusiastically. but a slip of the tongue about Roux’s infection, leads Steve to ask how Rho Total could also be infected.
Then he realizes it. Babbage has never been scared of Rho’s disease. Because he made it. Rho threatens the doctor who reveals he was just getting back at her for mocking him. The bug is little more than a bio-engineered version of the common cold.
Max and an ensign meanwhile explore further, heading down a hallway to a locked door on the way to the server room. As Max hacks Lori one last time, a shadowy figure appears and crashes into the ensign, killing him instantly.
Max shouts for help and Rho springs into action, placing a well aimed shot into the mutated doctor. Steve then calls out to his humanity and convinces him to give up. Ben reveals he just want to go home. Twitter quietly says they will help and then sedates him. Carefully isolating him and Roux, they ferry the two back to the ship for decontamination. Babbage downloads the medical data and gets to work on a cure.
Max meanwhile gets the server room open. Steve gives his call sign and Lori removes the lock down. They learn the Google, after being stranded, continued its mission hoping to find its way back. Along the way it encountered the Artifact. The crew activated a defense mechanism and before they could escape 5 of the 12 man crew were dead including Captain Scott.
Acting Captain/Chief Corporate Officer Amelia Hasbro attempted to take the ship to safety but the contagion brought on board liquefied the crew one by one. Amelia triggered the warning before succumbing.
Unknown to her the Medical Officer, Benjamin Roux, survived. Using an experimental treatment on himself, he mutated the virus. Instead of liquefying him, it drove him mad and deformed him. In the decades since he has reorganized the systems and attempted to restart the ship. Lori has tried to stop him but is precluded from killing him. So he has slowly destroyed and fragmented it.
From the sensors the crew of the scavenger ship have already succumbed to the disease. They direct the Google to fly into the sun. Max makes a copy of the AI and they leave.