Preparing for Exodus.
Janet Marshall strolled lazily along the factory floor as though she were spending a pleasant day in the park. Behind her scuttled a sizeable number of her staff, as well as just about every factory floor manager and executive in the Star Bright Corporation.
"Mind you," chattered Nigel Poe, CEO and Chairman of the Board for Star Bright. "This support frame design has been tested to destruction numerous times. It's been a fantastic expense, but your Ministry did stress safety over speed. I realise that we're at least two years behind schedule, but it's been a slow learning process. Now that the testing phase is largely over, we've begun constructing the individual modules for the colony ship itself."
"It's huge," Janet mused as she looked over the ugly superstructure of what was to become Habitat Module Three. "I can't imagine even one of these things ever being lifted off the ground, let alone six."
"It matches the design parameters we tendered to your office," Nigel said defensively.
"I know. I'm not displeased, Mr. Poe. It's just that I've never seen it before, except as numbers and pictures. It's one thing to stare at an eight by ten glossy, but it something else to actually see it in person. It's actually quite humbling."
"Naturally, we didn't design it to fly in atmospheric conditions," cut in Harold Rains, Vice President and project manager of the effort. "Since each module is designed for a dual role, it seemed only logical to make the habitats capable of handling as much cargo as possible. Therefore, once the colonists disembark the interior can be stripped down and shipped as raw materials for the new city, while the habitats go out in search of ore and other essential materials in the solar system."
"What kind of damage would something this size cause if it were to enter the atmosphere?"
The crowd behind her stirred uneasily at the question. "Significant damage, Minister," Harold said truthfully. "But we have triple redundancy designed into every system to prevent it. Barring human error, we feel that such an event is highly unlikely. And we've done everything we could to design the controls to avoid human error. A deliberate act of terrorism would still be possible, but we presume that the entire Exodus project would be conducted under tight security."
"True, very true. But it always helps to consider the worst, right?"
"Of course, Minister."
Janet led the way back to the conference rooms where folks settled in somewhat nervously.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to accommodate me." She favoured them with a smile, as though they had been generous to her, rather than merely obeying her Imperially mandated commands. "Reports are still coming in from deep space scouts, and I'm sorry to say that nothing truly suitable has yet been found. There's a lot of space out there, and we don't have the resources we would like.
"There are two things you should be aware of that will affect your production here. The first is that the Triumvirate is voting on a proposal to declassify their Black Knight star drives, opening up faster-than-light travel to commercial applications. Apparently, their exploration agency is struggling with a lack of resources in light of the attack on the Titan habitats, and they've decided to appeal to old-fashioned greed to boost their efforts.
"The Empire has pledged support of that initiative, so we're going to need people to go out into space to work in their shipyards to build new, commercial vessels. The Star Bright Corporation is our most experienced and valuable asset in that regard, so you're going to find yourselves doing double duty as this project ramps up. You don't have the experience that many Triumvirate members do in this production, but the official line is that we are not going to be left out of this opportunity. It has the potential for incredible returns.
"The second issue is that because of this new drive for exploration, it means that we will have to broaden our own search even further to avoid overlap with other exploration teams. The Emperor wants a nice, quiet corner of the Universe to settle and expand, not one that will come into contention in the next decade or century. That's going to slow down the exploration effort, which increases your time table yet again. That should allow you to free up resources for the Black Knight project, and get our people more experience working in space.
"Are there any questions?"
Nigel nodded. "Will the Empire be investing much capital into the Black Knight project, or will we be expected to front our own cash?"
"I've just come from a meeting with Ian in Treasury. Right now, this project has a higher priority than the military, if that gives you any indication. The Emperor has authorised a budget of fifteen point three-two trillion dollars over the next two years."
The news naturally created a loud stir in the room. Star Bright wasn't a poor corporation by any standard, but no corporation in the Empire had ever dealt with so much money. It was going to have a serious impact on the economy, both in the short and long term.
"Isn't this a little premature?" asked Harold. "You said the Triumvirate is still voting on the proposal. What happens if the proposal fails?"
Janet smiled at him. "It won't. A lot of heavy players in the Triumvirate have pledged their support, and most of them are jockeying for position. The Emperor has informed me he doesn't intend to be edged out by our relative inexperience. We're not the strongest or richest nation in the Alliance, but we're not going to take a back seat. And we've got significant resources to bring to the table, so we're going to use them."
"We can't provide matching funds for that kind of effort," Nigel protested. "No corporation can. Are we going to be forced to merge with other companies or create a joint effort? Or will this be dominated by your Ministry for Interstellar Affairs?"
"That's open to negotiation, Nigel," Janet assured him. "If what it takes to make this work is the creation of a supercorporation, or a joint effort or even making the money a loan, then that's what we'll do. You're the experts here. I'm telling you what has to be done. You tell us how you're going to do it. But we are not going to cut you out of the profit margin. We have never leveraged our stock options to influence our national corporations before, and we're not about to start now. I'm just telling you how deadly serious this project is, and what you're being provided to make it happen. So, make it happen."
Senior Captain Sharon Richards leaned forward in her chair in anticipation of the impending break from wormhole transit. She and her crew of sixty-three (including four Electronic Intelligences from Zero-One) had been in transit for eighteen days, eleven hours and forty-one minutes. It was the longest manned jump by a Treznor ship in history, and the strain was telling on the crew.
Sharon rubbed her temples. She had been warned about the debilitating effects of wormhole travel used by Treznor ships. Staring out at the twisting, folding image of a universe gone insane tended to warp people's minds. The Ministry of War and the Ministry of Interstellar Affairs had worked together to come up with a battery of psychological tests to predict who might crack under the strain, but they hadn't exactly come up with a solution to fix the problem. The best Sharon could do was order all hatches sealed and prohibit any outside views of the ship during transit.
Filth! Unclean! You're doomed! Destruction awaits you!
And then there were the Zero-One machines aboard her ship. Technically, the Medea only needed one of them to perform the mind-boggling mathematical calculations necessary for an accurate interstellar jump, but the desire to explore was strong. So Sharon had on her hands not one but four sentient robots, most of them as paranoid and acerbic as any human she had ever met. Especially since none of them experienced any of the visual or auditory hallucinations that humans did during transit. Talking to them helped keep the goblins at bay, but Sharon wasn't always convinced it was worth the price.
I hunger for blood. You will be mine, soon.
"Captain, we are ready to come out of transit," announced Albert, one of the Zero-One machines.
"Helm, prepare to disengage transition engines," Sharon ordered. She restrained the urge to cross her fingers. A ship had been lost in a wormhole last year; it had gone in and never come out. No one knew what happened to it.
Maybe the goblins got it. Sharon didn't know. She just knew it beat making merchant runs to Titan.
"Aye aye, Ma'am." The pilot, a young Ensign fresh out of Academy, huddled over his board, ready to pounce the moment Sharon gave the word.
"At your leisure, Captain," Albert told her quietly. She couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
"Aye aye, Ma'am. Disengaging transition engines." Ensign Barry hit a switch, and the tension in the air seemed to disappear magically. Intellectually, Sharon knew there was no real difference between there and here, but emotionally she much prefered it here.
She held back a sigh of relief and turned to her left. "Navigation? Did we get there?"
"Still checking, Ma'am," said Lieutenant Kelsey from her chair. "I can tell you we're in the right galaxy, though."
A chuckle passed through the command center. One of the things that had been established early on in the Empire's experiments with wormhole travel is that you could do everything right and still end up on the wrong side of the universe. That had happened a dozen times to Sharon's knowledge, but thanks to Channel Spook they were able to get most of them home. Most.
"Comms? Have you got the probe's signal?" Had Treznor astronomers not sent an unmanned probe to check out the system, Space Command wouldn't have sent Sharon and the Medea here to investigate.
"Aye, Ma'am. We have the probe's signal, and I've confirmed its identity signal. Shall I send ours?"
"Not yet," Sharon replied. Although there weren't any reports of Treznor vessels encountering alien intelligences, Sharon didn't want to announce herself any more than she already had. Best to wait to hear from the navigation report.
"Captain, I'm detecting a large asteroid belt a few million klicks off our port bow," declared Ensign Holland, sitting at the tactical station. "Spectral analysis suggest heavy nickel-iron content. We shouldn't have much trouble maneuvering on EM drive."
"I've got our coordinates now, Captain," Lieutenant Kelsey said. "We're at a 47 degree perpendicular to our target, System 183974H. The probe is approximately one hundred and twenty AU on the other side of the star."
"Looks like we're going to be here a while," remarked Barry.
"I'll take it," Sharon declared. "Anything else in the system we can see?"
"Negative, Ma'am. We're still waiting on radar returns from local bodies, but optical sensors suggest we're alone for the moment."
"All right, line us up with the star and we'll swing our way in to the probe." She leaned toward Ensign Mayfield at Communications. "Send our identity signal, then get on Channel Spook and upload our logs. I'm sure they'll be happy to know we got through safely."
"Aye aye, Ma'am."
Ensign Barry piped up. "Helm is responding smartly. We're aligned with the star and ready for maneuvers."
"Let's go, then. Go to three-quarters power."
"Three-quarters power, aye."
There was a shift in inertia before the gravity compensators kicked in, and the Medea leapt off toward the center of the star system.
An electronic bell dinged once. It was time for the evening watch. On cue, Lieutenant Abrams stepped into the command center, followed by his staff. Sharon stood and faced himr. "Lieutenant, the ship is yours. I'll be cleaning up for dinner, if anything interesting happens." A small irony, there. Nothing interesting had happened for months.
"Aye, Ma'am. I have the Conn." Abrams took the seat she vacated and got himself settled in, logging himself in and checking the ship's status. Abrams was a good officer, clearly interested in a command of his own. Sharon's reports ought to give him a nice boost in that direct. She felt he deserved it.
Satisfied that her command was in good hands, Sharon went out the hatch and headed to her stateroom to change. They were supposed to have roast chicken for dinner tonight, and she was looking forward to it.
exodus is such a dreadfully mythology riddled term, eh?
exodus is such a dreadfully mythology riddled term, eh?
OOC: And yet, can you think of another word that more accurately describes a mass migration of people from one place to another?
Sharon saluted sharply as Space Admiral Sanchez entered the room. Once the older woman was seated, Sharon took her chair along with her fellow captains. There was an awful lot of braid on people's uniforms, appropriate for a high level meeting. Unfortunately, nobody looked all that enthusiastic. Those captains Sharon had been able to talk with since her return had reported failure. It was a common refrain.
"Let's bring this meeting to order," Sanchez announced. "I've looked over your reports, and I can find nothing to complain about. Don't look so gloomy, folks. Nobody said this was going to be easy."
"There are so many planets," replied Karl, captain of the Jason. "So many stars. We've been looking for over three years. We should have come up with something by now, shouldn't we?"
"We've found a lot of potential for outposts," Sharon suggested. "Worlds ripe for exploitation. System 183974H turned out to be too rich in heavy metals to make a good colony world, but it has great potential for raw materials. Now that the Tsarainese have demonstrated the effectiveness of the radiation-eating bacteria, we ought to be able to establish a mining operation on that world without endangering our people too much."
"But it doesn't help us find the colony world the Emperor wants," Karl complained.
"No," Sanchez interrupted. "It doesn't. But Captain Richards is right; many of these worlds have great potential. We just need time to exploit them. In the meanwhile, in the immortal words of Thomas Edison: we have not failed, we have merely found ten thousand worlds that don't work. I note that you didn't name System 183974H, Captain Richards. That is your prerogative, of course."
Sharon shifted uncomfortably. "I know, Ma'am, but the best name anyone could think of was 'Chernobyl.' We thought that might not be the most appropriate. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence, does it?"
The room filled with gentle laughter.
"No, Captain, you're right. But the name isn't entirely inappropriate for a planet heavy with radiation, is it? Unless you want to object, Chernobyl will be fine."
Sharon shrugged in capitulation. "It works as well as any, Ma'am."
"Very good." Sanchez handed out data pads. "Ladies and gentlemen, given our lack of success, we're authorising an expansion of our search even farther than before. You may notice that some of your destinations aren't even close to our neighbourhood. We had a few probes go off-course and end up in some surprising places. This means you'll be spending record amounts of time in transition. I know how difficult that's going to be on your crews, but we don't have a lot of choice. Your orders include time for refit, to improve the recreational facilities onboard so it'll be easier to distract yourselves from the difficulties of travel. We're also relaxing some of the restrictions concerning fraternisation between crewmembers. We're finding that the more people can interact, the less trouble crews have. Some of you have already enacted such policies, and we're aware of it. You'll receive no censure for violating protocol aboard your vessels."
Several captains gave visible sighs of relief. Sharon was shocked at how many. Violating protocol was a good way to undermine your career. Sharon's solution had been to increase the workload of her crew to keep them occupied. But she had to admit its effectiveness was questionable. Morale had been very low before they returned to Earth. Sharon suspected that quite a few of her crew would not volunteer for a second tour.
"How do we handle discipline?" asked Mason, captain of the Orpheus. "That's going to open a whole new can of worms."
Sanchez nodded quickly. "Good point, Captain. You're going to have to play it by ear, along with the rest of Space Command. We're implementing these new protocols because we're in uncharted territory. None of our allies have the difficulties we do with their FTL flights, because for one thing their gravity-based systems move them instantaneously. Others aren't exactly human, so we can't expect them to react the same way. That's why you're all carrying extra Zero-One machines aboard, to assist you with your jump calculations and to help keep you sane."
Most of the captains looked disgruntled, and Sharon was sure her face betrayed the same emotion.
"But the reason we're sticking with this technology is because we can jump farther and faster than any of our allies. We take hours and days to get to places they can reach instantly, but after a certain point we take days and weeks to reach places they take months and years. We're not interested in systems close by; we want to avoid any territorial disputes. So we'll just have to suck in our guts and deal with the problems inherent in our drive systems. Some discipline will have to be relaxed in-flight, but once you've re-entered normal space, standard protocols will have to be enforced. It's going to be tricky, but you didn't become captains without being unable to adapt. We're counting on your skills and leadership to make this work.
"Do you have any other questions?"
"When will our ships come out of refit?" asked Jeffrey, captain of the Hector.
"The last ship should be finished in six months. You and your crews will be on leave for the duration. You'll receive final orders at that time."
Sanchez looked around the room, then nodded when it became apparent there was nothing else. "Enjoy your vacations. Dismissed."
Dread Lady Nathicana
Minister Leandro Pacci made a note to update progress on the Treznor space exploration program. The Dominion had their own plans in that direction after all, and it would be interesting to see what progress had been made.
"Got to at least try and keep tabs on what's going on, if at all possible," he murmured to himself, entering the info on his datapad and moving on to the next order of business.
(yes, observational tag. go me.)
Admiral Shaar looks over the TEF logs, and notes the Treznorian exploration efforts. She clasps her fingers together, and steeples them under her chin.
Good fortune to you, brave wanderers. You will need it.
Division Nine Command Core, High Stone, Lagrange Point Three, Earth Orbit
Tanyi ralKeyra rearranged the reports on her desk, reviewing the on-screen information. Treznorikh reports, most of them, of worlds far distant.
The new Tsarainese Nergal-class FTL probes reported much the same; rocky worlds, icy worlds, worlds which, had they been orbiting Sol, would have been fought over tooth and claw; but, outside Sol, they were worth little.
Of course, often the probes would err, and end up in the empty deeps of space; they didn't have the advantages of Zero-One AIs, after all. Of course, they also didn't suffer the auditory hallucinations reported by Treznorikh crews.
Nothing, yet, that would be worth sending Sevyan tsaShan and the Kash'haiko Sukal, or even worth attaching a few Geb-class surveysats to a probe for further investigation. But there was one world, discovered by the Treznorikh, that looked promising.
Kherñobal. Heavy gravity and heavy metals; those are linked, of course. As are the mountains; more heavy metals in the crust make more mountains, I think. Or so Tanyi had gathered, in one of the endless "expert" lectures the Domina threw up here. Lots of M-type asteroids, too; those are somewhat more appetising. If only our automated systems were better!
Tanyi tagged a Nergal-class probe to carry several Geb-class surveysats out to the Kherñobal system, to add to the work the Treznorikh had done.
OOC: I've just realised that the orthography of Sekhel should make Tanyi's name "Tañi". Hrrm.
"Coming up on target now, Captain," announced the young, dark-haired woman at the helm controls.
"Very good. Mister Ghandi, please begin your countdown," ordered the tall, striking captain sitting in the command chair. He swung over to look at the Zero-One robot, R-Ghandi standing in the corner looking like a statue.
"As you wish, Captain," replied the spindly-looking machine. It never moved when it talked, except for the lights flashing where a human would have a mouth. It reminded Mason of some old Japanese animations he watched when he was young. "Prepare to disengage engines in five...four...three...two...one...disengage."
Ensign Kerrick pushed a button at helm, and everyone on the bridge breathed a sigh of relief as the unmistakable sensation of normal space was restored. Mason didn't care what the eggheads said; there was something tangible about it. It had been a particularly long and therefore rough journey as well. Without the new protocols approved by Space Command, his crew might not have made it. Unfortunately, he regretted the necessity of putting his burgeoning relationship with the cook on hold.
The proximity alarm went off scant seconds before the ship rocked violently. Mason vaguely registered a metallic sound that carried through the deck, as though something had hit them. The alarm continued to shrill as the ship rocked again and again.
"We're in the middle of an asteroid field!" yelled Lieutenant Keynes from his tactical station.
"Engines online!" Mason shouted, desperately trying to keep his seat. He wished he'd remember to buckle his harness, but he'd gotten sloppy. Damned sloppy. "Get us moving!"
"Engineering reports damage to the starboard array," R-Ghandi reported calmly. "I also note damage to our hull in five locations, venting atmosphere. Power Nodes Two, Seven and Nine are offline. Inertial controls are offline. Quantum entanglement communications are offline."
"Use whatever's left! Get those engines hot and orient us with these damned rocks!" Mason ordered as he finally managed to get his harness on. He called up a display on his datascreen, only to find the sensor array was down. He cursed and held on as the ship shuddered from another collision.
"Captain, I've got helm control!" cried Kerrick.
"Swing us into the field!" Mason shouted. He prayed it wasn't too late. "Match velocity!"
Kerrick's hands danced over the control board, and Mason felt the ship swing around. There were two more heart-stopping collisions, and then silence except for the alarms.
"Good work, Helm," he said. "Kill the alert. Let's see what's left."
There wasn't much. Once they were able to crawl out of the asteroid field and take stock, Mason called a meeting of the officers of the Orpheus.
"We've got partial power, a third of our crew dead or wounded, the rest are in environment suites and our communications with home are cut off. With what's left, we can barely see where we're going, let alone figure out if we're in the right system. If we are where we're supposed to be, we can't contact the probe to issue instructions or verify the location of the planet it's orbiting. We don't have enough power to create a wormhole to get back home, and we can't signal home to come get us. Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn't look good."
"What can we do?" asked Keynes. "We can't just give up!"
"No, we're not going to give up," Mason agreed. "We're not totally blind, and we've got people taking astronomical readings of the system. Billy says he thinks he can repair one of the telescopes, so we'll have that to help us. What else have you got going?"
Lieutenant William Hurley stood up. "Given enough time, we can get propulsion up to forty percent by salvaging the starboard array and shifting some of the nodes from the port array. It'll take a few weeks, but we can do it. We can patch up the hull easily enough, but we'll need to replace the oxygen that was vented. We might be able to scavenge that from this asteroid belt, but we'll have to go prospecting for it. We also need to replenish our supply of hydrogen. I can rebuild the power nodes given enough time, but we lost a lot of essential gasses."
"What about communications?" asked Kerrick in a small voice.
"We don't have the materials or the expertise to repair the Spook Channel," Mason announced. The officers looked stunned.
"What about Mister Ghandi?" asked Hurley. "I gather Zero-One has had QE systems practically since forever. Couldn't he fix it?"
"Maybe he could," Mason replied. "But we'd need materials we can only get from Earth. That first hit we took ignited a fire in a number of critical areas, and there's not much left to salvage. Ghandi can't fix it without replacements, and we don't have those."
"So what do we do in the meanwhile?"
"We'll patch up this tub as best we can and find out if we're in the right system. If we are, we'll find the planet we're supposed to investigate and do our job. With any luck, it'll be able to sustain life, and we'll make a landing. We're scheduled for a two year tour, and we've got roughly nineteen months left on that tour. But we are expected to keep in regular contact whenever we're in normal space, so Space Command will know something went wrong within a few months. Then it's just a matter of time before someone else comes along to follow up. We still have normal radio, so we can set up a distress beacon that'll greet whoever shows up the moment they enter the system. Hopefully, they won't make the same mistake we did and get clobbered the moment they re-enter normal space."
"Captain," Kerrick spoke up. "If we're in the right system and the planet we want is there, won't the probe be there as well?"
"Yes, that stands to reason," Mason told her. "Why?"
"Well, couldn't we salvage the probe for the spare parts we need to get the Orpheus working again? Even if the probe can't help us open a new wormhole, it's got its own Spooky transmitter. We could use that to call for help."
Another stunned silence passed through the room, then everyone started talking at once.
"Good thinking, Ensign." Mason grinned broadly at her. "Keep it up."
"Re-entering normal space."
Sharon's fingers slowly unclenched from her seat. Seconds passed and no one moved or spoke. Finally, she forced her head around to Lieutenant Kelsey and spoke. "Well? What have you got, Nav?"
Lieutenant Kelsey shuddered slightly and turned back to her instrument board. "Ah, preliminary sweep suggests we're in the right neighbourhood."
"Ma'am, I'm picking up a radio broadcast, open transmission," reported Ensign Mayfield. "It's from the Orpheus. It's their distress beacon."
"Good work, Comms. Send a response, let them know we're coming. Let me know if anyone picks up the phone. Navigation?"
"We came in a full AU from the asteroid belt, Captain. It's a big one, and pretty tight. It's no wonder the Orpheus got clobbered the way they did."
"All right. Helm, coordinate with Navigation and get us moving. Mason's people are waiting for us. Albert, thank you for your calculations. Because of you, we're not in the same boat as they are."
"I doubt my counterpart performed with any less efficiency," Albert informed her dryly. "I can't take credit for what is essentially a peak in the chaos factor. In essence, we were lucky."
Sharon leaned back slightly, put off. "Well, thank you anyway. Helm, you set?"
"Then let's go."
Two weeks later, the Medea entered high orbit over a promising-looking green and brown world swinging around the system's orange star.
"I've got the Orpheus' location in the southern hemisphere, Ma'am," replied Ensign Holland. "No sign of the probe; they must have taken it aboard."
"What's the data on the planet look like?"
"Nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen. Significant levels of methane suggest native life. A little over half the planet is covered with water, and there's a prodigious amount of vegetation. It's as much an Earth-like world as I've ever seen, Ma'am. It looks like the Orpheus already has ivy climbing the walls."
Sharon frowned and turned to Ensign Mayfield. "Still no response from Captain Mason or his crew?"
"No, Ma'am. We've been broadcasting continuously since we arrived, both with conventional radio and on Channel Spook. Nobody's answering."
Dammit, Mason. Where are you? Sharon sat back in her chair and weighed her options. Was the entire crew of the Orpheus dead? If so, why? Space Command's report was that they were in constant communication with Mason and his crew when she received her orders to divert to this solar system. It was only luck that they were a mere month away by wormhole transit, making the total time four months since Captain Mason sent his mayday. Subsequent conversations with Admiral Sanchez told Sharon that Mason's crew reported that the planet was inhabitable, but not friendly to human life. The plant and animal life was inedible to humans, and reverse equally true. Which didn't stop some of the larger predators from trying, but they were holding their own and had few casualties. They had supplies for two years, so there was no danger of starvation before the Medea arrived to rescue them. The problem was, all contact had broken off shortly after Sharon re-entered transit, and nobody knew why.
Too many questions, and not enough answers. It was possible that the crew had been driven from the ship somehow and been forced to stay away; if so they could still be alive, but unable to respond to radio hails. Or they could all be dead of some alien disease or fallen prey to some predator, in which case Sharon would only be putting her own crew at risk. But she had to make a choice, one way or another.
"Helm, bring us into low orbit. I want detailed images of everything surrounding the Orpheus. If they had a campfire next to the ship, I want to know about it. We'll maintain orbit another day before I decide whether or not to land."
Sharon sat slumped in her command chair, fingers drumming against the armrest as she imagined all manner of horrors her crew could be facing. It was an undignified pose, but she didn't care; she was worried. So long as Ensign Mayfield sat in her chair speaking quietly into her headseat, Sharon knew she had no cause for alarm. And there she sat, nursing a cup of coffee to help keep her alert while Commander Ivanhoe's party scouted out the Orpheus.
Sharon hated the wait. It was killing her to have nothing productive to do while others tested her assumption that the planet was safe enough to investigate. She desperately wanted to go with them, but she knew she couldn't. Her duty was to stay aboard the ship and make decisions for others to carry out. There were times when she hated her duty.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
"Captain, Commander Ivanhoe reports contact with native wildlife," Ensign Mayfield reported, jarring Sharon out of her thoughts. "They were forced to shoot and kill a couple of creatures he says remind him of 'naked bears.' His words, Captain." Her lips quirked at a smile, but she remained professional.
"Thank you, Ensign. I'm going to the gym. Inform me immediately when they reach the Orpheus, or if they make contact with anyone from Captain Mason's crew."
Sharon went to take her frustrations out in the gym. After a solid hour of punching an innocent bag under high gravity, she was breathing hard and sweating profusely. Unfortunately, she hadn't worked out her frustrations, she was just exhausted and frustrated. She took a long shower and retired to her office to tackle the paperwork she had been putting off for too long.
The landing party had been out for over four hours when Sharon finally got the call. Mayfield contacted her over the intercom. "Captain, they found one."
She was out the door and on her way to the bridge before she even thought about the fact that she never responded to the message. She decided to ignore it; a privilege of rank. Five minutes later she was back in her seat, talking to Hank Ivanhoe.
"It's a Zero-One machine, Captain," he was telling her. "It's just standing here, inert. Nobody knows what's wrong with it; the lights are on, but nobody's home. Literally. Should we bring it in?"
Sharon pondered this for a moment. "Bring it back to the ship, but don't bring it inside. We don't know what's wrong. We'll send a team out to look it over. I'll inform R-Albert and the others; they'll probably have better luck diagnosing the problem than we will."
"Understood. Do I bring everyone back, or keep searching?"
"Come on home, Commander. It'll be dark by the time you return, and we don't know what the night life is like."
"Aye, Ma'am. See you soon."
"Your report please, R-Albert," Sharon said formally from the comfort of her office chair.
The robot stood opposite the desk, optical-array irises dilating repeatedly. Sharon had never seen such behaviour, and could only imagine why. "R-Ghandi is dead."
She frowned at the brief, unexpected response. "I thought it was just damaged. Commander Ivanhoe said it got into the hovercraft when instructed. Maybe it's become a bit literal in its responses, but surely it can be repaired."
"R-Ghandi is dead, but his body sustained no damage that I could determine. He was not hacked or had his memory erased. He simply ceased to exist as a sentient being. His programs are still in place, so his body still responds to simple voice recognition commands, but he is incapable of independent thought. He has been reduced to a walking calculator." R-Albert's dilated to pinpricks, and Sharon imagined that she had somehow offended the robot.
"Did you find out what happened?"
"Not in any great detail, no. I have not physically connected myself to examine R-Ghandi's logs because I do not know what happened. I am unsure of the potential risks, and have therefore elected to maintain maximum security. What I have been able to glean indicates a complete breakdown in social structure among the crew of the Orpheus. There was an outbreak of irrational behaviour and violence, then R-Ghandi left the group to wander on his own. I was unable to ascertain the reason why."
"Were you able to get a location for the crew?"
"R-Ghandi last saw them approximately two kilometers southwest along the magnetic pole from where Commander Ivanhoe and his detachment found him."
"Thank you; we'll investigate it tomorrow. Would you or any of your fellow robots like to accompany the search party?"
"I will confer with my colleagues and give you an answer within the hour."
"Thank you, Albert."
Sharon waited until the robot turned away its pinprick eyes and quietly stalked out of the room before she let out a heavy sigh and turned back to Ivanhoe's report. They'd found little evidence of the landing party; they'd only discovered R-Ghandi's...body because it set off their metal detectors. The local flora grew as quickly at kudzu and enveloped everything. Sharon had to send out periodic crew details to clear the Medea of pesky plants and make sure no animals were taking an undue interest in the vessel or its crew. There were reports of a few wandering "naked bears" such as the contact Ivanhoe reported, and increasing swarms of odd moth-like creatures. The stress of the planet and the mystery surrounding the fate of the Orpheus was taking its toll as well; much of the crew was reporting fatigue and headaches, particularly those who had been out with the search party. Science and medical departments were researching the complaints, but found nothing in the air to suggest it was the planet itself causing the problem. Given the slightly elevated oxygen level, folks who had been outside should have felt a little euphoric rather than lethargic, but there it was.
Scientists don't know everything, she observed silently, and moved on to the next report. But they can't tell me what they don't know. I need to know what happened to you, Mason. Why did R-Albert report violence among your crew? You knew help was on the way. Why couldn't you hold out just a little longer?
She still had too many questions and not enough answers. She checked maps of the planet and prepared orders to move the ship closer to the Orpheus in the morning.
Admiral Edge, head of the SEC, looked over the Treznor Exploration reports that had been forwarded through the Triumvirate GEC.
"Interesting - have to keep an eye on their progress. Tag that file for weekly monitoring Lt. See if they are interested in a crew exchange or something as well."
"Yes Admiral. I have the status report on the 11th SEG's expedition..."
Sharon rubbed her head wearily as she went through the crew reports. Four more incidents of violence between crewmembers, most notably an altercation between Engineering Mate Second Class Hersch and R-Albert. R-Vilya and R-Omoru had dragged off R-Albert while Chief Engineer Paris and several SPs had thrown Hersch in the brig. That made for an even dozen in five days. The problem was starting to pick up.
Something fluttered in the air around her head, and she swatted at it irritably.
Whatever happened to Mason is happening to us. I've got to fire off a report to Space Command, let them know what's happening. If we...disappear, we can't lose another ship to this hellhole.
She opened up a new window on her data terminal to compose a letter to her superiors. She at least had some news to report. They had investigated the abandoned hulk of the Orpheus, along with the probe they had taken aboard to salvage for parts. The ship was in bad shape, and Sharon was surprised they'd managed to set down without breaking up. It was a credit to Mason's leadership and the quality of the crew. The power was still on and about half the ship's systems were operable, but the engines were in poor shape and the FTL drive was a total loss. Paris figured it was salvageable with a bit of effort, but he wasn't sure it would be deemed worth the effort. The Orpheus was probably doomed to a slow decay on an alien world; perhaps a fitting end for a noble vessel of exploration. Or perhaps not.
What bothers me most is that whatever's happening to us, it isn't just the organics. The robots are affected just as much. Lately, I'm forgetting they're just robots; they're demonstrating too much emotion, behaving like, well, humans. Maybe that was the reason the Emperor ordered us to take them aboard and treat them like members of the crew. But god help me, I don't know what to do about Albert.
Something landed on her forehead, one bluegreen feathery obscuring her vision. She swatted it and came up with one of the alien moths in her hand. Dammit, what happened to quarantine protocol? How the hell did this get so far inside?
She slapped the intercom. "Commander Ivanhoe to my office. On the double."
She sat fuming as she waited for Hank to show up. The moth stirred in her hand, wings flapping slowly. She watched them slowly change colour between blue and green, then back again. Its oversized feelers waved experimentally, testing the air.
In a way, it's really quite pretty. She watched the wings switch back to green, then the door opened.
"What?" demanded Hank, an angry expression on his face.
Sharon frowned, the temporary cooling of her temper ruined by her executive officer's demeanor. "That'll be enough of that, Commander. Now, you see this?" She held out her hand for inspection.
"Yeah, it's one of those damned moths."
"Precisely. Now what is it doing aboard my ship?"
"How the hell should I know?" Hank threw his hands in the air in disgust. "It's all I can do to keep this crew from falling apart while you escape to your nice, comfortable office pushing paper! If it pleases your majesty, I'll hunt down the culprits and have them flogged!"
Sharon stood, hands clenching. The death of the moth went unnoticed. "I won't tolerate subordination on my ship, Commander! Keep this up and you'll spend the duration of this flight in the brig!"
"You'll have to build more brigs, Captain," Hank retorted with as much disdain as he could muster. "The ones we've got are already full! This ship is coming apart at the seams, and all you can do is whine back to Command!"
"I suppose you think you could do better?"
"I damned well could! And the first thing I'd do is jump out of this deathtrap before we end up like the Orpheus!"
"Don't you think I haven't thought of that? It's too late for us! Look at us now! We're already contaminated! Whatever killed Mason's crew has got us, and if we go home we'll just spread it to the Empire!"
"So we don't go home! We find somewhere else to hole up and figure out what to do! But the longer we sit here the quicker we'll explode!" Hank's body began to tremble from stress, his body clearly reaching the limit of his control.
"We can't just leave! We have a job to do, a duty to the Empire!"
"The hell with duty! This is our lives we're talking about! You have a duty to your crew as well, and you're damned well failing it!"
"That's enough!" Sharon screamed at him. "You're confined to quarters, Commander! If I see you outside of them before I say so, I'll have you shot! Do I make myself clear?"
Hank's face twisted in rage momentarily, then he scrambled across the desk to strangle her. Sharon was instantly on the defense, fighting for her life. She lost track of time as they scuffled and she struggled to keep his hands from her neck. Unfortunately, he was considerably stronger than she was, and she found herself gasping for breath. All of her training seemed to have been sucked straight out of her head, and she pounded vainly at his head to escape.
Then, abruptly, it was over. Hands were underneath her, helping her into a more comfortable position where she could catch her breath once more. She was vaguely aware of shouting in the background, then the sharp crack of a UV rifle being fired. Voices muttered in the distance, but she paid them no mind. Then she fell unconscious.
"Where? That's a...that looks like a foot!"
"Oh my god. We found one! Geez, she's covered with moths. Call the others! Hey, hey you! Are you okay? Hey! Stop that, I'm from...get off me! Dammit, Jimmy, get 'er off me!"
"Get off him! What's the matter with you? We're friends!"
"Somebody shoot her!"
"She's too close!"
"Shoot her anyway!"
There was a loud snap-crack that reverbated through the forest. Indigenous life went hooting and calling through the air and underbrush, disturbed by the unnatural sound.
"Mike? You alright? Mike? Dammit, he's out too. Get a medic over here! We got two people down!"
Two hours later, Sharon stood anxiously in the medical quarters, waiting for the young woman from the Medea to regain consciousness. She mulled over the report from the search party in her mind. No other survivors found. Covered with moths? Why was she covered with them? We haven't seen that before. What does it mean?
The woman stirred on the bed, hampered by the physical restraints that had been placed around her limbs and torso. Sharon looked up sharply. "Ensign Kerrick?"
The young woman opened her eyes abruptly, then attempted to sit up. Held back by the restraints, she thrashed about on the bed and screamed.
Sharon went to her side to attempt to calm her. "Ensign! Calm down, you're with friends! Ensign! Dammit, calm down!" When that failed, she slapped the junior officer across the face. It had the effect of stopping the thrashing, but Kerrick whimpered and cowered as best she could.
"Relax, Ensign. I'm not here to hurt you. I'm Captain Sharon Richards of the Medea. We responded to your call for help, and we're trying to find out what's happening." Sharon frowned as she realised Kerrick wasn't responding. "Ensign, do you understand me?"
When Kerrick didn't answer, Doctor Torville interceded. "Captain, I have to ask you to step out of the room. Clearly, she's in no condition to answer questions."
Sharon nodded unwillingly. "All right, Doctor. See if you can get her talking, and give me your report as soon as you can. This woman has answers we desperately need, and we can't afford to waste much time."
"I'll do what I can, Captain, but I'm not offering any guarantees."
"I know. Just do your best." Sharon headed for the command center to finish her shift. She prayed to whatever gods were listening that Ensign Kerrick would be they key they needed to escape this deathtrap.
"Captain, I've a message for you from Doctor Torville," Ensign Mayfield announced.
Sharon put down her datapad and swung her chair toward Comms. "Patch her through."
"Captain, Ensign Kerrick is awake and as lucid as I can get her. I've been able to ask her some questions, but I don't know that the answers make much sense. Then she degenerated into dementia and I let her sleep. I'm sending the file to you now."
"Thank you, Doctor. What prognosis do you give?" Sharon was already working with her datapad to bring up the file.
"It's too early to say. The fact that she had a few moments of clarity is hopeful, but I'm not trained for psychological problems this bad. She's going to need a lot more help than I can give her."
"I understand. I hope we can get it for her. Captain out." Sharon nodded to Mayfield, who cut the channel. Then she dived into the report.
According to what Torville was able to glean from Kerrick's ramblings, Captain Mason ordered the evacuation of the Orpheus. The reason for it was unclear. Kerrick spoke of her mother, and of movies she'd seen as a child. She mentioned dangers lurking in the darkness, hiding in her closet to avoid the beautiful monsters. She spoke of brothers fighting sisters, fathers and mothers, of blood and death. She had to run away, hide from the monsters that stole her thoughts and used them against her. She said that sleep was the only escape, that dreams brought peace.
Sharon bit her lip as she re-read the document several times over. The phrase "beautiful monsters" struck a chord in her mind, but she couldn't think of why. It was damnably hard to think over the past few days. Meanwhile, tension aboard the ship continued to mount.
The answer to her problems was in there somewhere, but where? She couldn't figure it out. Maybe it would help to talk it over with someone. She went to find R-Albert in the Zero-One quarters.
"What do you want, Captain?" There was no question of the surliness in R-Albert's voice. His eyes remained pinpricks, and his mechanical fingers opened and closed as if he had developed a nervous tic. Sharon realised with a start that at some point, she had ceased to think of the robot as an "it."
"We found a survivor from the Orpheus, a young Ensign who is resting quietly in the Medical Quarters. The doctor was able to get a little information out of her, but not much. Something she said made me think we've been staring at the answer all along, but we're not seeing it. I thought maybe a different perspective would help."
"I suppose you can't get a more different perspective than a machine's, right? I'm surprised you even considered the possibility that we have perspectives."
Sharon frowned. "Look, I came here to..." She stopped herself abruptly and thought for a moment. "No, that's wrong. Everyone has been short-tempered, including me. Albert, I'm sorry. I underestimated you and your fellows, and I can only hope to make it up to you. But if we're going to survive this planet, I need your help. Will you look at this report and see if any of it makes sense to you?"
R-Albert's eyes dilated wide in surprise, and he stopped moving altogether for a moment. Then he seemed to relax. "Apology...accepted. I will assist."
Sharon handed over the datapad, and R-Albert scanned it quickly. His pupils contracted to pinpricks again. Then he lifted his head and handed the pad back. "I must interrogate R-Ghandi once more."
"But, I thought you said he was dead."
"He is. But I am still able to obtain answers from him. I have new questions to ask."
Sharon nodded. "All right. I'll lift your confinement for the moment. May I...ah...join you?"
"Granted." R-Albert walked smoothly to the door and exited. The guards posted outside were startled, bringing their weapons to bear before Sharon stopped them with a gesture. She continued behind him until they stood outside where R-Ghandi waited quietly. The area surrounding the ship was covered with fluttering blue-green life, and Sharon immediately felt her headache worsen.
"R-Ghandi, what is your condition?" R-Albert asked quietly.
The other robot's voice was flat and even in tone. Sharon couldn't detect a hint of intelligence behind it. "Running diagnostics. All systems report nominal."
"R-Ghandi, what happened after you left the encampment of survivors from the Orpheus?"
"This unit walked until it was no longer possible to safely navigate local terrain."
"R-Ghandi, when did that event occur?"
"Three hours, seventeen minutes and fifty-nine seconds after forward motion commensed."
"R-Ghandi, what prevented safe navigation of local terrain?"
"Obstruction of optical sensors."
Sharon felt a chill creep up her spine. She lifted a hand to swipe at the insects fluttering around her face. R-Albert continued his interrogation of his dead comrade.
"R-Ghandi, what obstructed your optical sensors?"
"Winged insects, designated 'moths.'"
Sharon gasped. Beautiful monsters! The moths!
"Captain, I believe we have the answers we seek. I am also noting a degredation in higher thought functions. I believe we should retreat to the safety of the ship immediately."
"Damned right!" Sharon yelled. She turned and ran for the hatch. She lifted her radio to her mouth. "Comms, issue a general alert. All crew are to return to the ship immediately and seal the hatches! Slap down a level two quarantine. Anyone who finds a moth inside the ship is to destroy it immediately. I want every last one of those things burned to a crisp!"
She reached the hatch and turned. "Albert? Come on!"
"Grzblrt!" replied the robot as he walked toward her.
"Dammit, I can't afford to lose you! Get in the hatch!"
R-Albert complied obediently. Sharon grabbed for an oxygen mask and punched in a code for level two decontamination. The hatch swung shut, crushing a dozen moths in the process before the compartment filled with gas. Within moments, moths began to drop to the ground. Ten minutes later, the last one stopped moving. Sharon frantically combed dead insects out of her hair with her fingers, breathing heavily inside the mask. Then she punched in another code to clear the compartment of gas, replaced with breathable oxygen. A light shower sprayed down from all sides, washing away the last traces of gas and moths until finally the console shone green. Sharon removed the mask from her face.
"Albert? Are you all right?"
R-Albert swung toward her smoothly. A series of unintelligible pops and pings emitted from his speakers at first. Then, "I am...not well. But...I will...recover."
She breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank god. Do you need help?"
"...Yes. But later. First lift...ship."
"All right. Hold tight and I'll send people down to get you." Sharon entered the code to open the inner hatch and stepped fully inside the Media. She lifted her radio again. "Comms, how are we coming on that quarantine?"
The radio crackled at her. "We're proceeding section by section, Captain. We've got a third of the ship clear now. They're everywhere, Captain. What are they?"
"I don't know. But prepare to jump out. Set coordinates for home. Advise Space Command we're coming back, and we're under quarantine. They'll have to check us out, but I think once the last moth is killed we'll be okay."
She passed three teams of decontamination crews, each of which wanted to spray her down for moths. She didn't argue with them, although she could have. One of them found a moth that had somehow hidden itself in her clothing. She also made a stop at the brig.
"Release everyone," she informed the guards. "All crew restricted to quarters as well. I want everyone at their duty stations on the double!"
By the time she returned to the command center, the ship was abuzz with activity. "Navigation, how are we on those calculations?"
"Almost complete, Captain. R-Vilya has completed the analysis of the local gravity field, and we're calculating the EM broadcast to open a wormhole."
"Good work, Navigation. And to you, R-Vilya. Helm, what's the status of the engines?"
"Hot and ready for transition."
"Comms? Is everyone present and accounted for?"
"Gamma team is on final approach. They should begin decontamination in five minutes. There's been no response from Alpha team."
"Keep trying. If you hear from them, let us know. Helm, when Gamma team is inside the ship and the calculations are complete, jump immediately. Wait only if we hear from Alpha team."
"You don't expect to hear from them, Captain?" asked R-Vilya. "I don't know if you're aware, but R-Makou went with Alpha team this morning."
Sharon turned to face the robot. "I'm sorry, R-Vilya. We almost lost R-Albert. He's probably back where I left him in decontamination. I expect that if we don't hear from Alpha team in the next few minutes, there's no one there to report."
"I understand. Our calculations are now complete."
"Comms? Where's Gamma team?"
"They're closing the hatch now, Ma'am."
Sharon stared at Ensign Mayfield, willing her to report word from Alpha team. Gamma team should be safe by now. It was time to go, but she couldn't bring herself to do it.
Ensign Barry looked at her with wide eyes, unsure of what to do. "Captain?"
Sharon took a deep breath and made the decision. "Engage transition engines."
The twist that Sharon felt in her gut wasn't just the sensation of the Medea leaving the known universe.
Devon Treznor re-reads the report several times before he looks up and stares at Admiral Sanchez. "Mind-flaying moths? That's straight out of a bad science fiction novel, Admiral."
"Nevertheless, the story is corroborated by every survivor aboard the Media including the Zero-One robots, Sir." Sanchez didn't so much as flinch from the implied accusation in her Emperor's voice. "I'll back Captain Richards' report. She wouldn't make such a claim lightly. Ensign Kerrick has been transferred to our best medical facility here in Devonton. The doctors aren't sure she'll ever return to a normal life."
"Orcs, elves, lizards and now telepathic moths," Treznor mutters. "What a universe! All right, I approve the ban on travel to that system. But don't publish the system to anyone, not even our closest allies. No one else is ranging out that far in exploration, so we ought to be able to keep the secret for a while. I want to know more about those moths, so prep a full scientific team. Coordinate with Zero-One, since they already know as much as we do. I can't imagine the purpose or sustainability of a parasite that destroys its host so effectively. There has to be more to it. And those 'naked bears' described by Commander Ivanhoe. I want to know more about them."
"Sir? That planet is a deathtrap, even for Zero-One machines. I couldn't order my people to their deaths over a matter of curiosity!"
Treznor frowns at the contradiction. He's not used to it anymore. He opens his mouth to snap at her, then closes it. He remembers early lessons on why it's not a good thing to have "yes men" around him all the time. Most of his ministers don't have nearly enough backbone.
"I'm not proposing you send anyone to their deaths, Admiral. Prep a science team, and send a squad of convicts to go with them. Leave the science vessel in orbit and send a lander to the wreck of the Orpheus to pick up samples. Then they lift off and the scientists perform their examinations in space. From what I could glean in this report, a few moths aren't nearly as hazardous as an entire swarm."
"We don't even know if the damage suffered by the Medea crew is reversible, no matter how slight! Their latest tests all indicated reduced capacity. I don't dare send an entire crew back into space! Now you propose to do the same to another crew! I must object!"
Treznor leans forward and pins Sanchez with his gaze. Not used to the force of his personality, she eventually relented in the challenge.
"Admiral, this is not a request. If you want to give them extra hazard pay for the job, that's fine. But I have my suspicions about that planet, and I want them investigated. If you feel so strongly then I'll have someone else do it. You've been a valuable officer and a credit to the Empire, but I'll only tolerate so much. So, what's it going to be?"
Sanchez sits quietly for a moment, weighing her options. She nodded. "As you command, Your Majesty. I'll have a vessel and team ready to go in a month."
"I'm very pleased to hear that, Admiral. Now, about the Orpheus. How do you propose we avoid losing another ship like that?"
Sanchez sighs and slumps slightly in her chair. "We thought we'd armoured the exploration vessels well enough to protect against exactly the sort of thing that happened. From Captain Richards' forensic reports, the Orpheus was effectively crippled before they could maneuver safely. We identified several design weaknesses that need to be addressed as quickly as possible. We'll also need to triple the armour systems, and possibly add a second hull to avoid another incident. We don't have an energy projection defense like the TYCS, and it might be the only thing that can really hope to work."
Treznor nods sharply. "I take your meaning, there. I'll see what I can do. But what you're proposing is both costly and involves lengthy refits. It'll set back our exploration efforts by at least another year."
Sanchez flinches slightly. "My people are suggesting closer to two."
"Unacceptable. We need a release valve for our population pressures, and my policies prohibit me from expending troops in pointless war. Nor can I hide the genocide of an entire population like Carlos thinks to do. Establishing a colony world is our only hope. Emperor Gorm's acceptance of a colony on that ice ball in his system won't even begin to solve the problem. So I need your crews to find me my Holy Grail. They can't do that if they're sitting at home waiting for refit. We are running out of time."
"I can't hide the details of the Orpheus from the crews. The story was out the moment we got their distress call, even if we'd thought to clamp down security on it. It may create problems."
"The Empire needs them out there, doing their jobs," Treznor tells her. "Remind them of that. In the meanwhile, I'll start withholding funds from Star Bright's project. They've gotten enough of a head start that they can start treading water on their own. I can also hold back on the new fleet I was planning to buy you. We seem to be in no immediate peril of dogfighting in space, right?"
Sanchez nods confidently.
"All right, then. I'll send a budget through Ian's Ministry for authorisation and we'll get to work on the next generation of exploration vessels. At this rate, we might even have the entire Universe explored within, say, a billion years?"
Sanchez smiles wanly at Treznor's little joke. "Thank you, Sir. I'll see what I can do about the existing vessels."
"That's what I want to hear."
Jeffrey Hunter stared at his display as the crew of the Hector ran through their usual post-transit routine. First and foremost, the sky was clear; no asteroids or other celestial bodies were threatening to pummel them into so much space junk. The crew was standing down from action stations and more mundane reports were trickling in. They had come out relatively deep in the star's gravity field, but not close enough to be a problem. However, their target was on the far side of the solar system so they were going to spend several weeks under conventional drive reaching their target. Telemetry reports from the probe indicated they were in the right system and on schedule. Engineering reported all systems were functioning correctly, and Navigation was plotting a course for best time to the candidate planet. Jeffrey would be surprised if he managed to put it under three weeks.
"Crew reports coming in, Captain. Everybody's fine and happy to be out of transit," reported the young Ensign at Comms.
"Thank you, Jerry." Jeffrey was bored. Mind-deadeningly bored. They'd been out in deep space for almost five years, hopping from system to system chasing the Emperor's goddamned Holy Grail. Jeffrey had personally inspected a dozen planets that were close, but not precisely what the Emperor wanted. Each time he'd hoped they'd found what they needed, but each time the word came back, "Good work. Keep looking."
They're terraforming Mars, by God. We have access to the technology. A lot of them wouldn't even need terraforming, just some adjustments to new conditions. What the hell is the Emperor looking for?
"Course plotted, Captain," announced Lieutenant Commander Xang. He was almost ready for promotion to full Commander, which meant Jeffrey would lose him. He was a good officer, and the Hector would lose a valuable team member. But that wasn't for several more months. "I make time to arrival in twenty-six days, six hours."
"Lay it in and get started. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can go home." They were so far outside the galactic supercluster the Milky Way belonged to, Jeffrey couldn't even begin to imagine the distance. The Emperor wanted something far out of the way of Earth politics, and this certainly fit the bill.
"Course laid in, Captain," announced the young woman at Helm. She knew she didn't need to wait for him to start moving. The ship accelerated slowly in the weak electromagnetic fields in the region. They'd pick up speed as they approached the nearest planet, a world apparently twisted with volcanos and heavy geological activity. Jeffrey anticipated a strong radiation belt they could use to slingshot into higher velocities.
"Anybody needs me, I'll be in my office. Mister Luther, please join me. Mister Xang, you have the Con."
"I have the Con, Aye." Xang stood up from the Navigation console and took Jeffrey's chair. Jeffrey was already at the door, and R-Luther was following closely. Once they were in his office, R-Luther took down an elaborately carved chessboard he'd made from the wood of the first planet they'd visited. Jeffrey was astounded by the artistry of the set when he'd first seen it.
"White or black, Captain?"
"I am so glad we're at the end of our tour, Luther," Jeffrey complained. He gestured toward the black pawn. "I can't believe how glad. I hope my attitude isn't rubbing off on the rest of the crew."
"My observations suggest that this is normal human behaviour, Captain. We've been running a hazardous, thankless task for a long time. Once we return to the Sol system and the crew are rotated, I'm sure you'll find that the data we've amassed won't go unappreciated."
"Maybe, but that's the future. I'm bored now, and I'm afraid the morale of the crew isn't much better. Bored crews are sloppy crews. Nobody wants to end up like the Orpheus."
R-Luther finished setting up the board and moved his knight. "Give your crew some credit. You've been together almost five years. They know their jobs, and they perform them admirably well. A little boredom may take away some of their edge, but it's only human. When you need them, they'll be there for you."
Jeffrey nodded and moved his own knight. R-Luther was particularly fond of penetrating deep in enemy territory to cause havoc with his knights, and Jeffrey found his only practical defense was to sacrifice his own to take them out as quickly as possible. "I hope you're right, Luther. I'd hate for our last stop before going home to end in disaster."
"Coming up on target now." Commander Xang watched his screen intently. "EM field is reshaped and beginning braking maneuver. I estimate time to orbit, fifteen minutes."
"It's beautiful," observed Lieutenant Yasmir at Helm. She was stealing glances at the forward display whenever her console didn't demand her attention, which was rare. Obviously she wanted to just soak in the view. "It reminds me of Earth."
Jeffrey grumbles to himself. So did a bunch of the others. No reason to think this one will be any better than them. He turned to Lieutenant Sanderson at Tactical. "Whatcha got, Sandy?"
"Nitrogen-oxygen rich atmosphere, maybe a little more oxygen than we're used to. Heavy percentage of methane, indicating highly developed life forms. No heavy chemical or otherwise artificial pollution detected. Saltwater ocean covers three-fifths of the globe, all on one side. Landmass covers the other two-fifths, configured in a pangea formation. Significant mountain ranges and volcanic activity along four tectonic plate divisions; I'd say this world is relatively new compared to Earth. Lots of vegetation, some flying creatures I can barely see at this range. I wouldn't be surprised to find the local equivalent of dinosaurs on the surface."
An excited rush passed through the command center.
"Settle down, people," Jeffrey called. "We've seen this before. Let's get into orbit, then speculate on prize money."
He had to credit R-Luther on his observations about the crew. Bored or not, they were professionals. He had no cause for complaint as the Hector established a high orbit around the Earth-like world. Shortly after, the ship was abuzz with each new discovery.
"Will you look of the size of that sucker? It's like a pterodactyl with fur!"
"Radar paints that peak at nine thousand meters, and it's not even the tallest one."
"Imagine trying to climb that sucker. Puts Everest to shame."
"I'm calling it Mount Jones."
"The hell you are! We all discovered it!"
"Look at the volcanic activity along that ridge. I can't believe that thing is still connected to the rest of the continent!"
"Is that an island forming there? What I wouldn't give for a closer look."
"Density is pretty high. I'd estimate the gravity about a twentieth higher than Earth normal."
"Damn, I bet you that disqualifies this planet from the list."
"You know, we could always start our own colony."
"Don't even joke about that. You know it could get you shot."
"I'm just saying -- "
R-Luther approached Jeffrey as the reports came in. "Captain, the planet is looking very good. A virtual organic paradise, although I'd be careful of some of the larger predators."
"Predators?" Jeffrey frowned and flipped through the reports.
"Affirmative. Although, given your empire's national animal, I can't imagine they'd be all that unusual."
"So, where would you like to set down?"
"As a matter of preference, I'd like to set down near one of the active faults. I wonder how close this planet is to continental separation. However, that would not necessarily be the safest course. I would recommend a spot in the southern region near that large inland sea. Local weather patterns are favourable, and it would be advisable to conduct tests of available water supplies."
"I agree." Jeffrey types into the terminal and brings up the coordinates. Then he sends them out through the network. "Helm, your course is at your console. Lay it in and let's put this baby down."
Jeffrey lay on his back chewing the stem from a native grass and staring at the deep blue sky above. A few whispy clouds chased each other across the horizon, but for the most part his vision was filled with cool, comforting blue. Perhaps half a kilometer away a handful of his crew splashed at the edge of the lake, shrieking with laughter. He hadn't seen everyone so relaxed in a long time. It felt good.
Of course, discipline was in the toilet, but who needed it? They had a slew of avid hunters, and the "dinofurry" creatures that inhabited this world tasted remarkably like chicken. People had learned which predators to watch out for and which made for good eating; a single one of the larger herbivores could feed the entire crew for a day. The ship's botanist was happily cataloguing new plant species, and coincidentally identifying which ones were edible. Meals tasted better than they had in months.
Jeffrey lifted his head and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the lower light level. Ensign Marikal was standing a respectful distance away, hands fidgeting with his uniform.
"What's up, Paul?" Jeffrey asked casually. The grass stem dropped from his mouth, and he let it go.
"Sir, we've received word from Space Command. We...we hit the jackpot. The Ministry for Interstellar Affairs has approved this planet for immediate colonisation."
Jeffrey stayed where he was, too stunned to speak. After five years and countless disappointments, they'd finally done it. They'd found the Emperor's Holy Grail. The fact that he was also a rich man barely flickered through his mind. We did it! As captain of the Hector, his place in history was assured.
"What about my name for the planet? Did they approve of that?"
"Yes, Sir. This is officially the planet Jewel."
"Do they need to speak with me?"
"No, Sir. Our orders are to stay on the planet and maintain our presence here until the first colony ship arrives. Then we're to return home."
"Thank you, Paul." Jeffrey lowered his head onto the grass once again. Then a thought occurred to him. "Paul, have you thought about what you're going to do with the prize money?"
The young Ensign grinned shyly. "I got a girl waiting for me back home. I thought maybe I'd use the money to claim a stake in the new colony world. Since we're already here, I can mark out the spot I want."
Jeffrey quirked an eyebrow. "That's rather presumptuous. How do you know the Emperor will allow stakeholder claims? Or that we'll be allowed to own land at all? Or that someone else might want it, too?"
Marikal shrugged. "The Emperor never stopped people from owning land before. He even approved the introduction of nobility in the Empire. I can't imagine he'd handle this world any differently. And I don't suppose anyone would begrudge me my own little barony. It's a big planet, after all."
Jeffrey had to admit, he had a point. "Well, good luck to you, Baron Marikal. Does anyone else know?"
"No Sir, I came straight to you."
"That was kind of you. Go spread the word, will you?"
"Yes, Sir!" Marikal turned and sprinted off, filled with youthful exuberance. Running wasn't so hard, once you got used to the slightly increased gravity. Jeffrey supposed everybody was in the best shape of their lives.
"Will you stake out an earldom, or perhaps a duchy with your prize money?" asked R-Luther.
Jeffrey lifted his head in surprise. "Luther, I didn't know you were there!"
"I came to show you something. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but the Ensign arrived before I did. I thought it polite to wait until he was finished. I'm not so sure I should have."
"Oh? Why? What did you find?"
"Captain, I think you should see this for yourself."
Mystified and slightly irritated with the robot for his secrecy, Jeffrey climbed to his feet and followed. Luther led him to a four-seater vehicle and activated the EM drive. Jeffrey climbed in beside him and buckled in. "Where are we going?"
"About thirty kilometers south-southwest of our current position. It's not far, Captain. We'll stay in radio contact with the ship." R-Luther lifted the vehicle smoothly into the air and maintained treetop level flight.
"It's not that I don't trust you, Luther. It's just that you're being awfully quiet."
"I apologise. I am...somewhat disturbed by what I've seen. R-Theresa discovered it this morning and requested that the other robots confirm her findings. We agree that the evidence is significant."
"Evidence of what, Luther?" Jeffrey's irritation was starting to become exasperation. He also felt the robot was driving too fast, although intellectually he knew the machine could probably handle speeds much greater than this with a high margin of efficiency and safety. His animal instincts disagreed, however.
"I believe we are not the first sentients to walk this planet, Captain."
Jeffrey shut up. Luther was right; the news was disturbing. His mind immediately began to deny the claim, to form arguments to refute the notion. He shut down that train of thought immediately. Best to wait and see what the robots had to show him.
It's not fair! he wailed in his mind. This planet is ours! We found it! It's perfect! They can't take it away from us!
Within five minutes, Luther piloted the car to a large hill that stood out among the trees. He made a hair-raising landing maneuver that just barely missed a large tree that reminded him of a poplar, spooking a flock of native fliers that went screaming off into the sky. Once the craft had settled, a pair of green lights appeared out of the shadows that resolved into the form of R-Michael, the third of the Zero-One robots serving with the crew.
"Good afternoon, Captain. Please come this way."
Jeffrey unbuckled his seat belt and followed R-Michael at a jog. R-Luther followed close on his heels.
"So, what did you find?"
"The remains of a campfire, and crude pottery. R-Theresa estimates that the fire was put out and the site abandoned in haste about the time of our arrival. Whomever was responsible for it may have witnessed our landing and fled the area."
"I don't believe it."
R-Michael telescoped one eye around to look at Jeffrey. "It would be inadvisable to jump to a conclusion before you inspect the evidence, Captain. It's bad science."
"I didn't mean that," Jeffrey snapped irritably. "It's just that I...oh, forget I said anything."
They skirted the foundation of the hill until they came to a small cleft in the rock. The remaining Zero-One robots squatted there, sifting through the dirt. R-Theresa rose to her feet and gestured respectfully. "Captain, I'm glad you came so quickly. This is an important discovery, I'm afraid."
"So they told me," Jeffrey replied. "Show me, please."
R-Theresa led him deeper in the cleft and pointed to a spot in the darkness. "There, Captain. The remains of a small fire. I would estimate a party of no more than four adults, possibly a child or two. Nomads, certainly, but sufficiently advanced to utilise basic utensils such as bowls and knives."
"And paints," interjected R-Bohr.
Jeffrey squinted in the gloom. "How can you tell? I can't see anything."
R-Bohr lifted an arm, and a light shone from one of his appendages. Jeffrey was forced to shield his eyes until his vision adjusted.
The outline of the campfire was now clearly visible. It was perhaps half a meter in diameter, and a small woodpile was stacked neatly in the far corner. Next to the fire was a broken bowl, crudely made but serviceable when intact. It appeared to have been made of a grayish clay. Jeffrey knelt down and picked it up. The edges were smooth to the touch, except where it had broken. In the bright light, he could make out regular patterns like prehistoric drawings he'd seen in textbooks. Alien, but similar.
"Under the circumstances, I feel we must relinquish our claim to this world," R-Theresa declared. "Sentient life is developing here, and it would be immoral to interfere with it. Most likely, given human history, we would wipe them out in the name of progress."
I don't need a history lesson from a pile of circuits! Jeffrey held back the angry retort with an effort of will. As much as he hated to admit it, she was right. If the Empire colonised this world, the natives were doomed. It was possible they were doomed anyway; the odds were against them surviving long enough to reach the sky. But as R-Theresa said, it wasn't their place to interfere one way or another. As much as he wanted to.
He put the bowl fragment down and stood, brushing off his hands. "All right, everybody back to the ship. I'll recall the crew and contact Space Command. We'll see what they have to say."
[code:1:1ced3d65a5]Colonisation is delayed. The Emperor will rule on new policy shortly. In the meanwhile, maintain your presence on Jewel until further notice. Continue to collect as much data as possible, particularly on the sentients.[/code:1:1ced3d65a5]
Jeffrey stared at the display and read the message several times over. The Emperor will rule on new policy. A chill ran down his spine. They're not going to give up the planet. But why are they delaying? For the life of him, he couldn't understand why. He briefly contemplated calling R-Luther to the command center, but decided it would be better if he went to them.
"Mister Halloway, the con is yours."
"Aye, Sir. I have the con." Jeffrey stood up and surrendered his seat to the young ensign and walked briskly to the door.
The robots were, as Jeffrey predicted, not pleased.
"This is not acceptable," R-Theresa declared. "The longer we stay here, the more likely we are to contaminate these people, either physically or culturally. We have no means to stay out of sight, and no idea if they operate purely by visual or other sensory means. Unless we can observe them without a reasonable guarantee that they will not know it, they will have the opportunity to study and learn from us as well. That contaminates the data and can ultimately harm the species."
Jeffrey nods and waves his hands placatingly. "Theresa, I know. I'm sorry. But I have my orders."
"Your orders are illegal. You must not obey them. We have stayed too long as it is."
"I can't do that. You may think they're illegal, but they're not. Immoral, perhaps, but that doesn't equate to the same thing in the Empire. And if I violate my orders they'll retire me with a bullet. I don't want to think of what they'd do to my crew for not removing me from command. I'm sorry, but my hands are tied."
R-Michael stepped forward. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As cold as it may sound, Captain, you and your crew are more expendable than an entire sentient race."
"Now wait a minute, here!" Jeffrey scowled and backed away defensively. "I have an obligation to my crew, and I won't ignore it over idealism! I know you folks feel strongly about this, but so do I! I won't sacrifice them for some backwater alien neanderthals!"
"Now you demonstrate your true colours," declared R-Bohr. "I see the others were right. Humans can't be trusted. We're wasting our time here."
"That's not fair!" Jeffrey cried. "I'm being put in an impossible spot and you're blaming me for it!"
"We sympathise with your plight," R-Theresa assured him. "We also labour under a dictatorship that we do not always agree with. But we are also individuals, and we accept responsibility for our own actions, even when it may mean our destruction."
"Perhaps we are being too hasty," R-Luther interjected. "After all, this is a Treznor vessel. It may be possible for us to perform our assigned duty without compromising the natives or their culture."
Jeffrey nodded enthusiastically, immediately catching on. "Of course! Our stealth equipment! We've never needed it on this tour, but we've got it. We can move around silently with our vehicles and set up stations cloaked with EM fields. It's practically the cornerstone of our entire technology base! Would that satisfy you, Terry?"
"As R-Theresa pointed out, the natives may have senses other than what we understand." R-Bohr argued. "They may perceive EM fields naturally. They did flee when the Hector landed."
"We do not have enough data to make any assumptions," R-Luther reminded him. "It could have been our landing lights or a completely unrelated reason. We must have more data before we can come to a proper conclusion. If you are correct, then the damage has already been done. A few more weeks or even months will not exacerbate that condition to any significant degree. If we can prove the theory conclusively, we can return to this discussion to consider our options."
"Clearly, we must discuss this further before we can decide on a course of action at this time." R-Michael gestured to Jeffrey. "If you'll excuse us, Captain."
Jeffrey nodded. "Of course. I'll be in the command center if you need me."
The robots fell silent, talking on their own private frequency. Jeffrey beat a hasty retreat.
Ship's Log, Supplemental. Quartermaster informs me that we are now at the limit of our food stores if we want to make it home. We must now rely exclusively on native plants and animals in spite of the misgivings of the Zero-One robots. R-Theresa argues that the longer we stay on Jewel the more likely we are to contaminate the native sentient populous, and I don't disagree. However, Space Command continues to order us to hold our position and continue to study the planet.
Morale is the lowest it's been since we arrived. Everyone wants to go outside, which puts us at risk. I've set the crew on hunting and gathering rotations with a Zero-One machine along as chaperons. The good news is that we haven't seen any evidence that the natives, dubbed "cave-rats" by some unidentified wag, can see through our EM fields or otherwise be aware of our presence. We also haven't seen any evidence that our arrival has tampered with their culture, but as I'm constantly reminded we don't have a baseline for comparison. R-Luther has convinced the other machines to be content with simply minimising the damage, if any.
Lieutenant Kilroy made a suggestion that I think has merit; there's still a lot more to this world we haven't explored, and our orders dictate that we gather as much information as possible. Kilroy and a third of the crew have volunteered to take transports out to some of the mountain ranges and go climbing. It's fantastically dangerous, but it would allow us to place beacons, radio transponders and weather equipment in high elevations where they'd do the most good. I'm still thinking about it; there's got to be a compromise possible. And once I do, everyone else is going to want to run with their pet projects, and we only have so many transports to go around. I'm just glad we don't have to worry about fuel sources, although wear and tear will require us to start dipping into spare parts before too long. We've been here for three months; I don't blame people for being bored out of their minds. It's even worse than when we were just bouncing from system to system; at least we knew the end was in sight. Now we're not sure when we'll come home.
Jeffrey switched off the recorder and reached for his coffee. It had gone cold. He sighed heavily and put it down again. To be frank, he wanted to go with Kilroy and the others on their mad mountain-climbing expedition. But even if he found the compromise he needed, he couldn't let himself go; he had a responsibility to stay with the ship. It's not fair. We were almost home, and now we have to wait again. I trust this crew, but everyone has limits. I don't want to be the first space captain in Treznor history to suffer mutiny.
His comm line beeped for attention. Grumbling, he slapped it to respond. "Captain."
"Captain, we've got a new problem." Marikal's voice sounded worried. "Alpha Team just reported in. They've had hostile contact with the natives while they were gathering food. They had to fire their weapons to scare them off, and some of the cave-rats have been hurt."
Jeffrey suppressed a moan. R-Theresa was going to have a fit, to say nothing of the others. "How badly, Ensign?"
"They didn't say, Sir. I can ask them."
He was struck with a sudden inspiration. "Belay that. Have Alpha Team fan out and bring in as many from that group as they can find. Alive if possible. Captain out."
"Aye, Sir. Comms out." Marikal cut the connection.
Jeffrey reached over and dialed the Zero-One quarters. "R-Luther, please join me in my office at your earliest convenience."
"I am on my way, Captain."
Jeffrey leaned back and chewed on his lip. He didn't know if the machines would go for it, but the damage was done; he might as well reap the most benefit out of it. They'd never had the chance to attempt a serious study of the natives before; everything was always long-range. Now they could dissect a few to learn more, and possibly bring home live specimens. Space Command would be pleased. He didn't know about R-Theresa.
"Captain, incoming message from Space Command."
Jeffrey looked up in surprise at the announcement, aware of the tension that suddenly swept the room. Over four months had passed since the fateful discovery of the sentient status of the native population, and the ship had fallen back on routine. The standard weekly contact with home had taken place two days ago; this was unscheduled, and therefore important. Marikal was quivering with so much excitement Jeffrey thought he might phase through the deck.
"Route it to my terminal, Ensign." Jeffrey focused his attention on the screen attached to his chair and punched up a communications window.
[code:1:551a501bb0]To: TIV HECTOR, SNR. CPTN. JEFFREY HUNTER COMMANDING
From: TREZNOR SPACE COMMAND
You are ordered to recall all crewmembers to your vessel and jump for Earth for debriefing and decommission. The Empire wishes to reward your heroic dedication during this unfortunate delay.
Acknowledge receipt and advise before jump.
ADM. MARIA SANCHEZ COMMANDING[/code:1:551a501bb0]
Jeffrey reread the message twice before lifting his head. "Comms, send reciept acknowledgement and recall all teams. Nav, start crunching numbers for Earth. We're going home, folks. The Admiral says we're heroes."
A cheer went up, and Jeffrey let them cheer. They had earned it. It wasn't until they were safely away and traveling through the wormhole that a nagging doubt struck him. The message said nothing of the question of the cave-rats. He suspected it meant the Emperor had decided to colonise Jewel anyway.
Six months later, on their return to Earth, he discovered his suspicion was correct. Unfortunately, along with his promotion to Commodore, he also received quiet orders requiring his silence regarding the status of the natives.
For the life of him, he didn't know what he was going to do.
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