The Alnatic Encounter, Part 2

|2.0 Arrival

Theo sat up as the vibrations in the floor beneath him changed. It had been another long ride from Main Axis on the Slingshot carrier and even more boring than the ride from Earth. The carrier didn’t have a crew they could talk to, it was crewed by a Synthetic Intelligence. If you took the drive engines and thrusters away, it was just an open framework that held two shuttles. The visual sensors weren’t very exciting in drive space either. Outside everything was a uniform gray color. There had been ripples and eddies after they had entered the gate but that had smoothed out, leaving a flat gray expanse. Even Theo’s excitement about heading to the planet couldn’t take that level of monotony and he’d fallen asleep with everyone else, sleeping through their return to normal space. Leaving the carrier wasn’t any more interesting than riding on it. The clamps holding the shuttles opened and both of the Otters were gently eased away by hydraulic rams.

“Come on up,” Rachel said from the cockpit of the Otter. The surrounding bulkheads were covered with instruments and controls, but it had a real window that was shielded by a thick piece of armored plate that Rachel was just raising. She nodded to the other seat that was slightly lower and behind hers and Theo sat down and looked out at their destination.

Rachel had the nose of the shuttle pointed “down” at the planet and Theo watched the landmasses slide past below.

“Faster rotation than Earth,” Rachel said. “Roughly an eighteen hour day, slightly higher gravity but lots of oxygen so you might not notice. Our landing area is coming over the horizon now.”

Something about the view below was strange to Theo. As the terrain below changed, he realized that everything seemed regular, almost like it had been planned..

Rachel shrugged when he mentioned it. “We’re not seeing the giant oceans like Earth has, maybe that’s throwing you off.”

Theo nodded but to him all of the regions looked neatly laid out. He figured it was just his reaction to seeing a different world than Earth for the first time. Of course it was going to look odd to him.

“You might as well strap in there,” Rachel said, flipping some switches. “We’re going to start braking soon.”

Theo pulled the straps over his head as Rachel called back for everyone else to strap in. The view out the window was rotating, the planet sliding out of view below as the shuttle reoriented before contacting the thicker atmosphere below. Theo couldn’t see much, hazy plasma was beginning to flow back from the nose and slide over the windows. Rachel put on a pair of large goggles and was talking quietly with the shuttle’s SI in her headset but Theo couldn’t really follow what was going on. The shuttle began to vibrate and bounce and the view ahead was lost as the shield closed over the window. He felt the shuttle drop in the pit of his stomach and realized it was the gravity of the planet underneath them. The shaking and vibrations went on for a surprisingly long time before fading away, leaving the ship bouncing occasionally.

The plate over the window finally slid out of the way and Theo could see the tops of clouds, racing by below them. There was a whining sound as the wings partially unfolded from the hull. Rachel put her hands on the controls, telling the SI that she had control. Theo could hear the shuttle’s SI talking in her headset but Rachel was ignoring it. She had a look of utter delight on her face, completely absorbed by flying and he could see an inner joy, almost ecstasy, as she maneuvered the ship down through the thickening atmosphere. Her beauty was perfection in that moment and he felt a tightness in chest as the feeling of loss and sadness started to sink hooks back into him, He looked away from her, concentrating on the view outside.

The shuttle banked back and forth several times, losing more speed as they descended lower. The stubby wings were fully extended and Rachel laughed as she banked around massive cloud formations. They went lower still and he saw trails of vapor from the wingtips tracing their path. Rachel flew into a bank of clouds and there was a brief spatter of rain over the windscreen that was quickly gone. They were under the clouds and over a large yellowish plain. Rachel banked in a long circle and below them, Theo could see the other shuttle just landing.

“Spoilsport,” Rachel said into her headset. “Okay, Otter Eight, you have control.”

Rachel took her hands off the controls as the ship straightened out and began to slow even more. They were a couple hundred meters off the ground when the ship stopped and began to descend vertically toward the ground. There was a gentle thump and then a sudden silence as the engine noise died away.

“Attention, this atmosphere will easily support all entities aboard,” the shuttle said. “A detailed analysis is now available.”

Rachel looked at Theo and he quickly shook his head.

“Log it in the records please,” Rachel said, smiling as her hands danced across the controls, shutting everything down.

“Nice flying,” Theo said as he unstrapped.

“Thanks, birdie,” she said happily. “That’s the best rush ever. Almost as good as se…”

Rachel’s face turned red as she cut herself off.

“…it’s a lot of fun,” she finished lamely.

“Almost as good as sex then?” Theo asked with a grin.

She laughed and nodded, looking at the controls once more before unbuckling herself. “Welcome to Alnatic C.”

The shuttle assured them that there were no large or hostile lifeforms in the area before opening the hatches and rear cargo ramp. The smells of warm earth and dry grass filled the shuttle. It was a comforting smell after days of recycled air and the warm breeze made Theo want to suddenly dance. He was on another planet!

Theo could see the Pioneers from the other shuttle already unloading gear and the security team was already on the job, looking around as they laced their boots tighter and checked their weapons once more.

“Theo,” Emma said from behind him.

He turned around and she handed him a heavy bundle with straps wrapped around it.

“Full clip, nothing in the chamber.”

Theo nodded and unrolled the shoulder holster, slipping it over the gray fatigues. Supposedly there was nothing dangerous in the area but they weren’t taking chances.

“We ready?”

She smiled and pushed him toward the ramp. “I know you’re dying to get out there, go.”

Theo walked down the ramp with Emma following. He stretched as he took a few steps away from the shuttle and then grinned at the view around him.

“We’re going to get camp set up right over there,” Marisol said, walking over from the other shuttle.

It looked exactly the surrounding area to Theo but he scanned the area, trying to look judicious. They were in a endless looking grassland that looked a lot like the African savannah, if you ignored the strangely shaped tree-things dotting the landscape. In the distance was a ridge, dark with more of the tree-things. On the other side of the shuttles was the craggy looking area they were here to investigate.

“Yeah, that’s great. I was thinking of this side, but that spot is much better. Grassier.”

Marisol smiled slightly. “Glad you approve. Ready to do some real work?”

“You mean there’s no forms to fill out? No arrival logs or stuff like that?”

She nodded toward the shuttles. “They take care of all that. We’ve got our real job to do.”

“Oh, thank god,” Theo said.

Marisol laughed and they went to help unload the tents. The shuttles were parked two hundred meters apart and the sleeping tents were clustered between them. A larger tent was placed in the middle and screens and sensors for the security teams were set up inside along with folding tables and chairs. The late afternoon was just warm enough that the team removed their heavy fatigue jackets. Nighttime temperatures were projected to be about fifteen degrees cooler.

“Pretty nice weather, this will make a good colony,” Holm said as he and Theo tightened the last line on their tent.

“It’s the middle of summer here,” Theo said, checking the line once more. “It gets a lot colder in the winter.”

“Then let’s be gone before that happens,” Imae said, carrying her bag into the tent.

Emma was already inside unfolding the legs on her cot. She opened the valve on the mattress and sat back as it began to self inflate. There were already two beds on the opposite side of the tent. Theo had planned to sleep on the cot in the command tent but Marisol had vetoed the idea. Even with Vuli’s assurances that there were no large predators in the area, they would be keeping watch and the overnight shift didn’t need to be tiptoeing around because Theo was asleep in their office. He’d half expected to have a tent to himself but Emma vetoed that idea. She wanted him close. Holm staying with Emma was already assumed and then Imae joined the group to “keep an eye on things”. Theo didn’t say anything, but he was glad. He was already feeling a distance between himself and the rest of the team. People didn’t salute or anything silly like that but he could sense a certain reserve in people when he was around. It would be nice to relax with other people, even if they were asleep at the time.

Theo started to drop his gear on the bed next to Emma’s but saw Holm’s stuff already sitting there.

“Okay with you?” Emma asked.

“Hmm. Can I trust you two to behave?” he asked.

Imae laughed and Emma gave him the finger. Theo put his stuff beside Imae’s cot and went back out to look around. The golden grass that surrounded the camp was interrupted on one side of the camp by the humped profile of caldera. It consisted of a dark rock, split by cracks or ravines in several places. At the base of the rock was a tumbled mass of stone covered by the debris from the tree-shaped things grew thickly on the top and down the sides. Their shade made seeing into the large crevasses impossible, especially in the long deepening shadows of the late afternoon. Theo sat on his heels to examine the grass. It looked just like the grass on Earth and the soil was a brownish gray, like dirt on Earth.

“Contact, animals,” Jonesy said from the bud in his ear. “1.2 klicks to the north-northwest.”

People walked to the edge of the camp, shading their eyes as they looked at a herd of quadrupeds ambling by. The animals occasionally paused to pull at the grass, completely ignoring the camp.

“Those look a lot like antelope,” Deirdre said as Theo walked up to watch.

“It stands to reason,” Sandi, one of the Pioneers, said. “Similar habitats would produce similar life forms. Form follows function.”

“Don’t start the environmental determinism again,” Jack, one of the human Pioneers said.

“What about the cephalopods similarities between Earth, Juneo, and Calphis then?” she shot back.

“That’s one life form out of how many? And how do you know the Founders didn’t drop them when they seeded the prefcoria?”

“Did you even read the article on DNA typing that I gave you?” she sighed.

Deidre and Theo looked at each other and quietly left as the two Pioneers continued what sounded like an ongoing debate.

The sun dropped behind a distant ridge and the landscape around them immediately darkened. There were a few LED lanterns burning and the team gathered in front of the command tent, rations in hand. Theo sat next to Emma, relieved that he’d gotten the chili this time. Vuli was standing in the middle of them, talking about what she’d seen on the planet and what they could expect.

When she was finished, Harry began his own informal briefing and Theo watched him carefully. The geologist was fairly quiet but when he spoke up people listened. Theo was still a little uncomfortable talking to everyone at once. He didn’t have Marisol’s innate bad-assery and he figured Harry might be the example to follow.

“…so we’ll set up two separate survey teams tomorrow,” Harry said. “Team one will look for any usable stratigraphy in those fissures. The other group will tackle the surface of the formation. That’s all I have. Marisol?”

She looked up from her food. “We’ll have people with both teams of course and maintain an overwatch from the camp here. If there’s any kind of trouble, sit tight. We’ll use one of the Otters to get people to you ASAP. We’ll have people on sentry duty all night, let them know if you’re going beyond the camp perimeter in the dark. That’s all I have. Ayr?”

She bounced to her feet. “Pioneers, you know your jobs. Get rested up, we’ve got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. If you bother the security teams with going outside the camp, you’d better have a damn good reason. Theo?”

He swallowed a bite and stood up. He thought about imitating Harry’ laid back style but wasn’t sure how, so he just talked.

“We’ll be using one of the shuttles to overfly the area tomorrow,” he said to the crowd of faces suddenly looking at him. “Anyone who’s interested in seeing the place from the air, talk to Rachel or Marcus. We’ll set up a rotation so no one gets left out. Other than that, you’ve all done excellent work so far and I know you’ll keep that up. Thank you. Any questions?”

They all just looked at him and he felt foolish suddenly. “Uh, that’s all I’ve got. Enjoy your evening.”

Theo was glad it was fairly dark. He was blushing for some reason and was glad no one else could see it.

“Not bad,” Emma whispered and everyone went back to talking.

“Sounded stupid,” Theo muttered.

She smiled. “A little too managerial, but don’t sweat it.”

 

 

 

After people had finished eating they began to drift to their tents. All day long they had been circled by something that looked liked birds and as it got darker they started to land. One of them was perched on the pole of the command tent and examined them all with bright beady eyes. Up close they didn’t look like birds at all. They had fur instead of feathers and long tails. The closest thing on Earth might have been a flying squrriel but these things were in the air for hours, not a few seconds between trees. The bird thing made an unpleasant croaking sound and crapped on the tent fly.

“That was rude,” Theo said as he walked back to the tent.

The thing made a noise like a frog and closed its eyes. Theo shook his head and went into the tent to get his jacket. Imae had already crashed and was lying on top of her cot, still dressed and snoring faintly. He felt around for the jacket and the noise made her open her eyes and mutter something.

“Don’t you want to take your clothes off?” Theo asked.

Imae giggled. “That’s a little inappropriate, Theo.”

His face was hot as he heard laughter from the tents on either side of them. “That’s not the way I meant it.”

“And it’s a good thing my mother didn’t hear that.”

“Oh god,” Theo said. “I’ll see you later.”

There were a few people standing around when he came out. From the grins, they’d heard every word.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Theo said to everyone in general.

“So we heard,” Betsy said from inside her tent. “I’m taking off my clothes if you need to know, Theo.”

“For fuck’s sake,” he muttered as everyone laughed.

Jonesy was coming out of another tent wearing his field gear. He had the first shift on the overnight watch. Theo quickly escaped the group to join him and they began a slow circuit of the camp as Jonesy checked the surveillance drones and cameras.

“That was pretty smooth,” Jonesy said.

Theo rolled his eyes. “If I was trying to look like an ass in front of everyone maybe.”

The test light on the autonomous camera flickered green and Jonesy walked to the next one.

“Mind some advice?” he said as he pushed the self-test button.

“Please,” Theo said.

“It sounds cliché but stop worrying about looking like a leader. Concentrate on the job, you’ll figure your style out over time. And relax. How are you sleeping?”

“Everyone asks that, I sleep just fine.”

“We won’t stop asking. On Earth, the overwhelming majority of new company grade officers sleep an average of three hours a night,” Jonesy said, walking to the next camera. “That leads to stupid mistakes we can’t afford. You’ve got Qwiksleep, right?”

“Yeah. But I don’t want to use them in case something happens in the middle of the night.”

“That’s why there’s two pills,” Jonesy said. “The second one negates the first one, no cobwebs at all.”

Theo just nodded as Jonesy tested the next camera. He really didn’t want to have to take a pill to go to sleep.

“I never apologized for what happened at the Ranch,” Jonesy said as they moved to the next unit.

Theo shook his head. “You have nothing to apologize about, I just didn’t understand what was going on. Did Kawehi yell at you or something?”

“Not really. It just felt like kicking a guy when he was already down. Wasn’t my intention, I’m not that great at noticing interpersonal stuff sometimes.”

Theo snorted. “You have two girlfriends. You’re doing just fine.”

Jonesy laughed as they walked to the last camera. “Honestly, I just agree to whatever they say. We’re good though?”

“There was never a problem.”

Theo stuck out his hand and Jonesy shook.

“Don’t stay up too late,” Jonesy said as he headed for the command tent where Betsy was doing something to the view screens.

Theo went back to the tent. The other three were already asleep and he quietly sat on the cot and took off his boots. He laid back but wasn’t remotely sleepy. He ended up staring at the tent above him, listening to everyone else sleep. After a long time, he heard Deidre and Shep coming out of their tents. A few minutes later, Betsy and Jonesy quietly went into theirs. That meant half the night was over and he still didn’t feel tired. Finally his eyes drifted shut and Theo fell asleep.

 

 

|2.1 The First Day

“Hey.”

Tulip had her hand on his chest and Theo sat up on the bed.

“Everything okay?” he asked quickly. But Emma felt calm and he relaxed a little.

“Everything’s fine, breakfast meeting in a few.”

He nodded as he turned and put his feet on the floor. Imae and Holm were already gone.

“Wait, what time is it?”

“Sparrow, take a breath, okay?” She sat down on Imae’s cot and looked at him and he could feel the worry radiating from her.

“I’m fine.”

She snorted. “Did you forget that our connection is a two way street? It’s my job to look out for you. That includes your mental health and you’ve been way too stressed. So, after dinner tonight we’re going to do some yoga and deep breathing exercises together.”

He looked at her doubtfully. “Yoga.”

“Yeah, I’ve even got some pants you can wear.”

“No.” Theo got up and headed for the door.

Emma followed him out of the tent. “Come on,” she said, wrapping her arm around his waist as they walked. “Men wear yoga pants too.”

“You know I can tell when you’re lying, right?”

“C’mon Sparrow, your ass would be magnificent in yoga pants. Just try it out, no one will know.”

“Like last night with Imae, right?”

She laughed and squeezed him. “We should also discuss that. Your game is terrible, little brother.”

“It wasn’t what I meant and you’re all of eight minutes older than I am.”

“Doesn’t matter. I was first so I’ll always be your older and wiser sister.”

Less than two hours later, Rachel used the grav engines to lift the Otter to a couple hundred meters before using the standard fusion engines to push the shuttle into conventional flight. The passengers in the rear, Theo, Emma, Vuli, and Harry, wore harnesses attached to the overhead as well as headsets to communicate over the whine of the engines and roar of the wind. The side panels had been removed, leaving the middle of the craft open.

Below, the Pioneers were busy assembling the pieces of the monitoring beacons while the security team searched along the base of the cliffs for the best route in. Most of the cargo area in the back was taken up by a special laser scanner that recorded the topography of the anomaly in sub-centimeter detail.

“Harry, I thought calderas were holes,” Emma said over the intercom.

“They are, and this should be. Are you familiar with Devil’s Tower in Wyoming?”

“I’ve seen pictures,” Theo said.

“Okay, so that’s the remains of an ancient volcano, the outer cone has eroded away leaving only the central pillar. That’s the erupting lava that cooled and solidified. Maybe we’re looking at something similar here. The surrounding area would have eroded away, leaving this more durable rock that would have been coming up from deep underground.”

“And do you believe this to be the truth?” Vuli asked.

At first there was no answer. Theo looked over at Harry and he was studying the outer edge as they slowly flew the diameter of the anomaly.

“No,” Harry eventually said. “There’s something else at work here. There is definitely a plume of magma coming up from the lithosphere, you can see it on the seismic surveys the Gyr made of the area. But I have no idea what this is. Rachel, can you take us higher and across the area?”

“Let me finish this orbit so Ayr gets her scan. There’s no active heat sources showing up, flying over it is no problem.”

Rachel kept the Otter in a gentle bank, recording everything. Theo watched the trees slide past. It looked like a forest, there were a few gaps in the canopy but for the most part, it was a bumpy wrinkled blanket of vivid green. It was even more intense in contrast to the surrounding grasslands.

“There must be a big water source down there,” he said. “The ridges in the distance aren’t this heavily forested.”

“Something’s definitely different here,” Marisol agreed. “Maybe it was intentional. There’s nothing like this on the rest of the planet, Vuli?”

“I have found nothing in the survey records. They’re relatively recent, only about fifteen hundred Terran years old. My root consciousness worked on a different landmass but this is the only plume of magma found.”

“I noticed there were no indications of tectonic plates,” Harry said.

“The term does not translate well. Apologies, explanation, regrets.”

“Were there long chains of volcanoes in coastal regions maybe?”

“There were no volcanoes found.”

“That’s uh…” Harry sounded confused. “You’re aware of what a volcano refers to?”

“Indeed, the Gyr homeworld has many of them. I recall confusion and dismay during the survey.”

“I bet. I’m not a planetary ecologist but I know that volcanoes were critical to the early formation of life. There must be some other mechanism.”

“I regret you were not given the full results of the survey. The Gyr hierarchy can be difficult, obtuse, obstreperous. And also complete assholes.”

Emma quickly put her hand around the microphone pickup on her headset and Theo could see she was laughing.

“The Sheep Herder taught me many inappropriate words,” Vuli said proudly to Theo. “Do you remember, Marisol? You were quite excited.”

“How could I forget? You marched into my room and used a few.”

“Yes, ‘ball busting, fire breathing, hardass!’ You were quite surprised.”

Marisol laughed. “Yes I was. That put Shep’s ass in a sling. Then we found out about all the music he gave you.”

“I protested to your ambassador, I said it was a partial cultural exchange. Luckily he did not recognize my low status and the Sheep Herder was spared official punishment, retribution, general ass kickings. You remember that I said that with affection and respect?”

Emma doubled over and they could hear her and Harry laughing.

“This story isn’t for public consumption, Terrans,” Marisol said but Theo could hear the amusement in her voice. ”

“First orbit complete,” Rachel said. “I’m going to keep us at two-five-zero meters over the canopy.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, leaning forward to get better look at the sea of trees sliding past beneath them.

“Did you see that?” Theo asked suddenly. “Those trees?”

“Didn’t notice, what’s going on?” Marisol asked.

“I’d swear we just flew over a collection of oak trees,” he said.

“You’ll probably get similar forms in similar habitats,” Harry said.

“Savannah isn’t an oak habitat,” Emma said. “I saw them too.”

“I put a waypoint in the nav, we can come back later and take a look,” Rachel said from the flight deck.

From above they could see a series of regular looking gaps running in straight lines, interspersed with long curving arcs.

“Are these fracture patterns normal?” Marisol asked.

“Not anywhere I’ve heard of,” Harry said. “I don’t even know if they’re natural.”

“We found no traces of a civilization here,” Vuli said. “We searched very carefully, ethics forbid colonies on worlds with sentient life.”

They all looked down as the Otter flew over another collection of gaps in the trees but none of them had any idea what they were. Harry was writing something on a pad but Theo couldn’t tell what it was.

“Big herd of those antelope things off to the right,” Rachel said as they crossed the edge of the anomaly. “Want to take a look?”

“Let’s get some photos at least,” Harry said.

The Otter banked and Emma pulled a pair of binoculars from Theo’s pack. Rachel avoided flying directly over the mass of animals below and slowed down considerably. Emma had the binos up to her eyes and then handed them to Theo.

“They sure look like gazelles to me,” she said.

Theo took a look but he’d never seen one on Earth and had no idea what was so interesting. After a second he handed them over to Marisol who took a look.

“Not a zoologist, I have no idea,” she said after a second, handing them back.

“Radio call from the camp,” Rachel said in their headphones. “Switching over.”

The transmission was choppy and garbled and they could barely make out a voice.

“Weird. I’m climbing higher to get a better signal,” Rachel said as the nose of the Otter pitched sharply up.

“What’s wrong with the signal?” Marisol asked.

“Dunno. We left the carrier in a geo-synch orbit overhead. It’s supposed to be relaying signals,” Rachel said. “Camp One, you reading yet?”

“Hey Otter Eight, Otter Six requests you RTB,” someone said.

“Copy, returning to base. Sitrep?” Rachel radioed back.

“Situation green, we’re clearing your landing area now. Camp is standing by.”

 

The camp came into sight a few minutes later and Marcus was waiting with dayglow batons to guide the Otter back to where Rachel had taken off from. She shut down the engines and came out of the cockpit and followed the rest of them out.

“Nice landing, baby,” Marcus said as he jogged over.

Emma rolled her eyes. Whenever  Theo was around, Marcus got very possessive and looked ridiculous.

“Why’d you call us back?” Theo asked. “What’s going on?”

“Mm, one sec,” Marcus said and went to kiss Rachel.

Emma stepped between them. “I believe the mission commander just asked you a question?”

Marcus was obviously annoyed but tried to laugh it off. “Sorry, sorry! It would probably be better if you guys saw for yourselves. Ayr found it but I’ll show you.”

“I’ll talk to Ayr. You stay here and get post-flight done on that Otter,” Theo said over his shoulder as he walked away.

Marcus started to go after him but Rachel grabbed his arm.

“What the hell is wrong with you? This isn’t summer camp,” she hissed.

“Who does that trainee think he is?” Marcus growled, staring after Theo.

“He thinks he’s the commander,” Marisol said as she walked by. “Who do you think you are?”

“C’mon, we need to get the camera data downloaded,” Rachel said, interrupting whatever he was about to say.

 

|2.1 First Survey

 

Ayr was sitting under the shade fly under the command tent with Sam. They were both filthy and soaked with sweat. But they both jumped their feet as Theo walked over.

“Hey  boss, you’re not going to believe this,” Ayr said, grinning.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s not geological at all. Would you believe it’s a city? Looks like it’s carved right down into the rock.”

“Anyone still using it?” Theo asked.

Ayr shook her head. “I don’t think so. Once we realized what we were seeing, we backed out but it looks like whoever built it left a long time ago. Can we please go back in?”

“Yeah, let’s get a team geared up,” Theo said. “Tell me what you saw…”

 

 

 

Theo followed Ayr to a narrow path they’d hacked through the tree shaped things. Up close the branches were smooth and almost glossy like bamboo. Instead of growing straight, the branches curved up from the central trunk. Instead of leaves, there were long strands of what looked like Spanish moss hanging down from the tips, blowing slightly in the wind.

“Little bit of climbing here,” Ayr said.

They clambered over large angular boulders until they were standing on top of the pile. The tree things didn’t grow up here and it was clear enough to see down the canyon. The thick forest cast deep shadows over everything. The roots twined and twisted over the sheer walls everywhere Theo looked, looking like the giant veins of some gargantuan beast. Water was dripping below them, running down the bottom of the canyon.

Ayr was standing next to Theo looking at him expectantly. Theo squinted into the dimness and noticed a number of holes. They were regular and too regular to be natural. He suddenly realized he was looking at doors and windows. The thickest roots grew down between the buildings, giving the impression of an unbroken wall stretching out into the dimness. But they were really seeing a long overgrown city street. They stood aside as Deirdre and Betsy carefully climbed down into the street below. Something had destroyed the outer ring of buildings and they were standing on the ruins.

“Theophile, we had no idea this was here,” Vuli said quietly. “I would know if anyone had.”

“It doesn’t look like much from above,” Theo said. “I’m not surprised they missed it, especially if this is the only one.”

“I am concerned, worried, agitated about what else they might have missed.”

Theo could tell Vuli was indeed agitated, the long crest on the top of her head was standing half erect. Theo bent down to run his fingers over the stone. It was smooth and cool to the touch.

“This looks like it requires a high level of technology,” Theo said. “So, unless they’re a completely subterranean species, the Gyr would have noticed something.”

“The thoroughness of your people is well known,” Ayr added.

Vuli’s crest relaxed slightly. “You are both kind to say so. May I say again, I was not assigned to this continent.”

Theo grinned. “I understand.”

“Can we keep the Sheep Herder from knowing of this lapse? He will be quite obnoxious, difficult, and also a bastard.”

“I think he’ll find out,” Ayr said. “But you tell me if he’s mean and I’ll bounce him around until he apologizes.”

Vuli bowed slightly and climbed down to join the others and Ayr turned to Theo.

“So?”

Theo looked down the long dim street under its tunnel of trees. “It’s impressive.”

“We need a name. What do you think of Ayrsville? No, Ayrston.”

“What do you think of Theopolis?”

She shook her head. “Doesn’t have the same feel to it.”

He laughed. “I kind of liked it but whatever. C’mon, lets go down.”

“Wait, Ayropolis! That’s not bad and you can have the ‘-opolis’ part of it.”

Theo snorted as they picked their way down and Ayr laughed.

 

 

 

The wet area turned out to be a tiny trickle of water winding between the roots. The city had been empty long enough for the leaves from above to break down into soil. The brown surface was broken here and there by debris from the surrounding buildings.

“Been a long time,” Theo said, picking up a small rock. It was the same finely grained gray-purple stone.

“It’s not as damaged further in…” Ayr’s voice trailed off.

Theo grinned at her. “But you reported back as soon as you saw buildings.”

Ayr sighed. “Why am I glad Vuli isn’t hearing this?”

“It is because you are a follower of rules,” Vuli called back from ahead of them. “Now you have broken them.”

Ayr sighed and rolled her eyes as everyone laughed.

At the first clear intersection, two of the crews split off in either direction. It looked like they’d be parallel with Theo’s group. They moved further into the city, the dim green tinged light allowed them to see about a hundred meters in each direction. They followed the creek upstream as it meandered back and forth between the buildings. The street was more of a boulevard, easily fifty meters wide.

“No gravel,” said the Pioneer with Theo and Emma (what size is three groups minus lookouts). “It’s just bare stone and dirt.”

The trickle of water had been gradually getting wider as they walked. It was roughly a meter wide by now and several inches deep.

“Must be soaking into the street,” one of the Pioneers said.

“I think they’re using it all,” Theo said, looking at the trees above. “There’s got to be a lot of water keeping all of them this alive but there’s no hint of a stream coming into this.”

They stopped at the next intersection and all three teams moved around, using handheld lasers to record everything.

Theo and Emma sat on a big chunk of rock that sat directly in the stream. The water split around it and rejoined on the far side. This was the same shape as a piece missing  from the  building across the street.

“I don’t think these fell down because of age,” Theo said. “Look at the edge where the water hits it, it’s no more eroded than the part above the water. This stuff is hard. You’d need something with a lot of force to break it.”

Emma nodded. “Less damage as we go further in, I wonder what’s in the middle of this place.”

There was an eerie ululating howl that echoed down the artificial canyon from in front of them.

“There’s your answer,” Theo said, putting what was left of his meal bar back in his pocket. He took a quick drink from his water bottle and stepped over the water. Emma took an empty bottle from her pocket and got a sample from the stream as Theo called the other groups on the radio.

“You guys hear that?” Holm asked over the radio.

“Sure did,” Jonesy said from the other group. “Theo?”

“Yeah, we heard it,” he said. “Both teams head fall back to the center. We’ll head back out as a group.”

“You think it was that big?” the Pioneer asked as they pulled their packs on.

“I have no idea and don’t want to find out,” Theo said. “We’re too spread out to go see and we’re losing the light. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Marisol almost looked approving when her team joined back up. They headed back down the stream and Theo noticed that Marisol’s team automatically spread out so there were watchers on all side of the Pioneers. It was so natural and subtle that he didn’t think anyone else even noticed. None of them looked especially nervous and he relaxed a little. Soon they were at the base of the debris wall. Betsy and Shep climbed up first and rigged ropes to help everyone get up quickly. They still looked relaxed and nonchalant but Theo noticed Shep had relaxed slightly.

Theo looked at the rest of them. No panic, but they were happy to be getting out of here. Theo waited until all of the Pioneers were up before climbing up himself, Emma using the rope beside him. Shep and Marisol were the last two out the others half pulled them as they climbed.

Shep grinned at Theo. “That was even worse than an Ulthira scream. I think Deidre might have wet herself.”

“And now Shep’s getting his ass kicked,” Deidre called from below.

Shep winked at Theo and followed the rest of the team out onto the plain. Theo was surprised at how bright it was and realized it was still late afternoon out here. Back under the trees, it was as dark as night. Theo headed for the sun, wondering what was watching them from the shadows.

 

 

 

When they got back to camp, Jonesy and some of the others immediately went to set up more cameras on the forest side of the camp. Marcus and Rachel were waiting for them.

“That didn’t take long,” Rachel said.

“It’s crazy dark in there,” Theo said. “Did you guys hear that weird noise out here?”

“The bird things screeching a little, but that’s it,” she said.

“Freaky sounding, maybe someone got a recording. You find anything out about the carrier’s radio?”

“The repeater was offline, it’s back up again but the Synthetic says that the self tests are failing. I’m hoping that a little time will let the problem sort itself out and I’ll check how it’s going in the morning,” Marcus said.

Theo nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”

“And, uh, I really want to apologize. My behavior earlier was out of line and it won’t happen again.”

Theo glanced at Rachel but she had her poker face on. Marcus stuck out his hand and Theo shook.

“Thanks. I can appreciate that our teams are different from life in the Raptors, chalk it up to growing pains?”

Marcus was very carefully not looking at Rachel, she still wore her poker face and kept ignoring him. Theo smiled at them and went to claim dinner before he got stuck with Turkey and Peas again.

Wow, she must have chewed his ass hard.

 

 

 

The sun set while they were eating. There wasn’t much dusk this close the equator and the faster spin of the planet made darkness come pretty quickly. All of the talk was about the discovery, who could have built it and when, where they’d gone. Theo was thankful that all of the attention was on that, he was a lot less self-conscious. Imae had saved him a dinner of meatloaf and he sat down with her. Ayr and Emma were already there with Holm. He’d lost some sort of bet with Emma and both of them kept making him get up and get different things, grinning at each other every time he sighed and shuffled off.

“I’m not quite clear on the magma hot spot you were talking about earlier,” Theo said after they’d finished eating. He pulled out the small stone he’d pocketed. “This was a volcano once and they used the lava stone to build?”

“Can I see that?” Imae asked.

He handed it to her and Imae held it up to the lantern light and examined it closely.

“Jonah got more of that for you guys to mess with, I was just curious,” Theo said.

“Obviously the rock here is going to be different than on Earth,” she said. “But this doesn’t look igneous.”

“You just said this is a different planet, so it might be,” Holm argued.

“The same physics we have on Earth works here,” Imae said. “And this looks like metamorphic rock to me.”

“She’s right,” Harry said from behind them. “I took a quick look at the samples we brought back. To me, it almost looks manufactured. We’ll know more tomorrow.”

“Then why the magma plume right here?” Ayr asked.

It had gotten quiet and Theo saw that everyone else was now paying attention to the conversation.

Imae shrugged. “Maybe the buildings were put here because of the plume. If there were explorers from offworld, they would know about seismic surveys.”

“Why risk it?” someone asked. “That seems like a strange thing to base a settlement on.”

“Especially given our mission,” Ayr said.

Imae shrugged again. “I have no idea.”

“We’ll find more of the puzzle tomorrow,” Harry said, getting up. “Trying to create a hypothesis out of what we know so far is pointless.”

Harry headed for his tent but everyone else was too excited by the discovery to think about sleep yet. Imae and one of the other geologists started in on a technical discussion using terms Theo had never heard before. Emma and Holm were already headed off into the dark, so Theo got up and headed the other way.

He passed the command tent, the rest of the team was sitting around in front, still talking about the city. Theo could see, almost feel, the air of excitement. He couldn’t let it take him, not yet. He couldn’t get past the feeling that there was something…wrong about the planet. Theo finished his circuit of the camp and headed for his tent. He’d try to get to bed earlier, then they could all stop bugging him about how much sleep he was getting. He had a pretty boring book that would help.

When he got to the tent, he saw that Emma had left her baseball cap clipped to the door. Theo wondered if she’d forgotten it and was about to unzip the door when he heard Emma moan quietly. Was she hurt somehow? Then the wave of lustpleasureneed washed over him. Whatever was going on, she was enjoying it. He grinned as he quietly backed away. Maybe Rachel and Marcus were still up. Neither of them treated him like anything special, albeit for different reasons.

 

 

 

The first Otter whispered that it was empty when Theo asked and he headed for the other one. He had just put a foot on the ramp when he heard Rachel’s voice. She was begging Marcus to fuck her harder.

A hot prickly sensation washed across Theo’s back and down his legs. He stepped back, embarrassed but didn’t walk away. He listened to Rachel’s moans, remembering how gorgeous she’d been flying the shuttle. As her moans turned into little wordless cries, Theo remembered her body pressed against his, what kissing her had been like that day on the range.

Then he was suddenly disgusted with himself and walked away. As hard as he’d worked to push his feelings for her away, it was ridiculous to wallow in whatever emotion he was wallowing in, listening to her and Marcus together.

No more, he thought. Do your damned job, these people are depending on you to do that.

Rachel wasn’t his, wasn’t promised to him. The only thing that life had promised so far was hardship and pain.

Watson’s Hole taught you what real pain was, this is nothing. So stop being childish, these people are counting on you to make the right decisions, to take them back home. Save the pain and hurt, like Rachel told you. Save it for the time you can make it matter.

So instead of screaming at the sky or pounding his fists into the ground, Theo headed for the other end of camp, avoiding the group still murmuring in front of the command tent. There was a large smooth rock outside of the camp and he sat on the ground, leaning back against it. Technically he should tell the security team he was out here but it wasn’t even ten meters out. Theo sat down and took a long deep breath before looking up at the unfamiliar stars overhead. Emma was right, he was too wound up, he had to relax.

Theo tried to sort out his reaction to everything tonight but instead of a neat little stack of emotions, it was a rapidly whirling knot he couldn’t begin to unravel. He didn’t know if he even wanted this life, not down deep. It would have been nice if Kawehi was here to talk to.

But they’d already spent a lot of hours talking, if he needed her here to hold his hand, he didn’t belong in command. Theo believed Kawehi, their connection didn’t allow for anything but truth. She had said he was ready for this, ready to stand on his own. It was long past time for him to join the fight, use what he’d been given to make a difference of his own.

Of course he wanted this job.

Theo smiled up at the stars. Why was he being so stupid?

Because you need to sleep more.

He’d give Emma and Holm some more time before going to bed. He’d take the damn sleeping pill because it wasn’t about being tough and making it on his own. It was about the people depending on him, all of them.

“I wondered where you went,” Imae said from behind him. “I wanted to tell you to avoid the tent for a while. Emma left her hat outside.”

Theo nodded, still looking up. “I almost walked in before I heard them.”

“That would have been hilarious.”

Theo laughed, imagining the screaming and yelling. “I’m sorry to have disappointed you.”

“Can I share your rock or are you having deep, commander-ish thoughts?”

“All done with those. C’mon down.”

She smiled at him and sat down next to him. She leaned close and he put his arm around her shoulders instead of trying to wedge it between them.

“That’s okay?” Imae asked and looked up at the stars without waiting for an answer.

Theo looked back up as well.

“Pretty amazing first day, huh?” she asked after a while.

“You can say that because you don’t have to write the report.”

Imae laughed and they sat in companionable silence. Then there was a loud moan from one of the tents nearby. They both laughed.

“That’ll be Deirdre and Shep,” Imae said.

“When did that start?”

“Seriously? I thought you were an empath.”

Theo shrugged. “I try to ignore those details. It’s not fair to people around me.”

“Hmm. Maybe it’s not fair to the people around you if you don’t share. You could be telling me so much about what’s going on. It would be amazing!”

Theo looked at her and she laughed. “I’m kidding. Is the sex in camp bothering you?”

“I thought it was but I’ve been stressed and haven’t been sleeping as much as I should. I’m glad people are enjoying themselves and happy.”

“You’re taking a Qwiksleep tonight,” Imae said. “I’ll get Emma to hold you while I force it down your throat. Or we could give it to you in the other direction.”

“Relax, killer. I already came to the same conclusion.”

“Good.”

There was giggling behind them and Theo smiled. He could see Imae looking at him in the corner of his eye but kept looking up. Finally she cleared her throat.

“What?”

“I was looking for you and heard Rachel and Marcus in one of the shuttles. Was that bothering you?”

Theo looked over at her again. “Seriously?”

“Look, don’t blame me. I just have a high social aptitude. You two were a thing, or almost were, and they weren’t even trying to be quiet.”

“It started bothering me but I knew something like that would happen eventually. Worrying about something like that is not why I’m here. Like you said, we were almost a thing. It’s not something I need to worry about anymore.”

“That’s a good answer,” Imae said. “So, is there anyone you are interested in?”

Theo laughed. “I’d have to be insane to tell you that.”

“Hey!” Imae’s voice was hurt. “The stuff we talk about is always between you and I. We’re friends and I wouldn’t do that to you. Unless it were really, really good…”

He laughed and she pinched his arm gently.

“Theo, I love being your friend and wouldn’t do anything that might hurt you. Even if it was something really good. Okay?”

He looked over at her. “Okay. I’m sorry, I never realized that.”

She rolled her eyes and looked back up. “That’s because you’re clueless about anything besides training and that silly car. Ooh, shooting star!”

Something large left a trail of fading sparks across the sky.

“It’s Marisol, isn’t it?” Imae said. “You’re just afraid to admit to yourself.”

Theo sighed.

“Don’t ignore the question. It’s okay, she’s an authority figure and stern and maybe you like the idea of getting turned over her knee…”

Theo reached down and ran his fingertips over her ribs. Imae yelped a laugh and squirmed as he tickled her.

“Okay, okay!” she gasped.

“I’ve been focusing on training so I’ve been too busy to even think about stuff like that.”

“You never noticed Ayr flirting after Jake left? She figured you liked someone else but I think you’re to dense to have noticed.”

“She wasn’t very subtle and I’m not a complete idiot. I just didn’t respond to it. I couldn’t, not with a Ta’avi.”

“Wow. Racist much?”

Theo laughed. “You know what I mean. I’d always be wondering if they were going out with me just because I’m the Lady’s son.”

Imae was quiet for a while. “I guess that makes sense. If you didn’t really know the person maybe. What if you found someone that was hot for you before anyone knew who you really were.”

“I’d probably still worry about it.”

Imae shifted in her chair, leaning closer and lacing her fingers through his. “You might not understand Ta’avi, or women as well as you think though.”

“I don’t doubt that at all…” Theo said, looking over.

His voice trailed off. Suddenly Imae was staring into his eyes. Her dark eyes were luminous in the starlight and Theo swallowed. He hadn’t looked closely at her before,  hadn’t realized how beautiful she was. Her soft auburn hair had grown out to almost an inch long and might have looked strange on someone else. On her, it was perfect and he couldn’t imagine her any other way.

“The thing is, you’re hot,” Imae said softly. “Why do you think I hung around and annoyed you? And getting to know you, seeing the man you are, just makes you hotter. So get over yourself, that has nothing to do with the Lady.”

“Uhm, okay.” Theo had no idea why he was whispering back.

Imae leaned closer. “I’ll tell you what I think; your family saved our lives but last year you gave us our souls back. Souls are where attraction comes from, so it all evens out.”

“That makes no sense. And Ayr was the one who figured out what was going on.”

“Would you please shut the hell up and kiss me?”

Imae leaned closer. Theo shut the hell up and kissed her. She made a little noise, half whimper, half moan, as their lips met. Theo’s arms wrapped around her but Imae wiggled around until she was sitting in his lap facing him, keeping her lips against his the whole time. Her tongue touched his lip and he instinctively opened his lips slightly, touching her tongue with his. Ayr made the little noise again, pressing herself against him and Theo arms tightened around her.

He wasn’t completely sure of what he was doing but Imae gently showed him the way. Their lips reluctantly parted and they stared into each others eyes, breathing hard.

“But what about Ayr?”

She grinned. “You’re an overachiever, Theo. She can join in next time.”

Theo briefly imagined that but shook his head to clear it. “No, you said she was flirting and…”

Imae pressed a finger against his lips. “And I was flirting with you first. If it was going to be a problem, I wouldn’t be kissing you. I promise.”

Theo finally nodded, a little reluctantly.

“Seriously, relax for once.”

She smiled at him again and bent forward to gently kiss her way up his neck. Theo squirmed slightly and he could feel her smile. She put her arm around him, kissing further up his neck until she was at his ear. Her breath gave him goosebumps and then the tip of her tongue traced the edge of his earlobe. Theo gasped, squirming again.

Imae sat back slightly. “Now you try it.”

Theo pulled her back and pressed his lips against her skin. He could smell soap and traces of a spicy scent. He opened his lips slightly and touched her skin with his tongue as he kissed his way up. It was Imae’s turn to writhe gently and he held her tightly.

“I knew you’d be a good student,” she gasped.

Theo he gently pinched her earlobe between his lips before tracing the delicate edge of her ear with the tip of his tongue. Imae gasped and pressed herself tightly against him. Theo had rapidly gotten an erection and he shifted slightly, trying wanting to press it against her.

“Are you kidding me?” she whispered. Her hips moved, rubbing herself against the hardness.

“You like that?” Imae whispered, looking into his eyes.

Theo pulled her down into another kiss. He lost track of time as they kissed over and over, little gasps and moans coming from both of them. Imae sat back again, with a wicked grin on her face and took his hand. She moved it under her shirt, guiding it to her small breasts. Her nipple was hard against his palm and Theo traced it with his fingertips as they kissed. Imae was breathing faster and squirming as he kissed her again.

“Hey, guys?”

Theo instantly pulled his hand back and Imae gave a little groan of frustration.

“Uh, hey Betsy,” Theo said. “What’s going on?”

“Sorry to interrupt right when things were getting interesting. Thing is, you’re sitting directly in front of one of the night-vision cameras.”

Imae buried her face in his shoulder, giggling.

Theo’s face was hot again but he had to laugh. “Thanks. I should be getting to bed anyway.”

He got up and helped Imae to her feet. Betsy smiled and winked before disappearing back into the command tent. It looked like everyone had gone to bed but they heard heavy breathing and quiet moans from several tents as they walked past.

“Is there something in the atmosphere making everyone horny?”

Imae smiled and took his hand as they walked. “You’ve never done any field training in teams, have you? This is pretty normal, especially for Ta’avi.”

He stopped. “Really? With everyone being traditional, I had thought….”

“I have a theory that everyone who loses a planet gets a higher sex drive trying to replace everyone they lost. No one ever actually says anything, but most of the Ta’avi women are pregnant most of the time. Big families weren’t part of our culture before.”

“Wait, that means the Garragh…”

She giggled quietly. “Yes. I’ve been wondering who will give out first, Emma or Holm.”

“Interesting theory.”

Imae pressed herself against him and they kissed again. She pulled his head down and nibbled his ear.

“You can be my concluding argument,” she whispered. “Did you fall victim to overwhelming waves of lust when you found out?”

“I was eighteen when I found out,” he whispered back, tracing the muscles in her back with his fingers. “I already had overwhelming waves of lust.”

Imae pulled him tighter against her. “We’ll need lots of experimentation to isolate the effect then.”

Someone unzipped a tent and they both quietly laughed and finished walking to their own tent. Inside, Emma and Holm were somehow sharing a single cot, wrapped around each other. Imae smiled and pulled a sheet over their naked forms.

“They’re gonna be sticky tomorrow.”

“Dude!” Theo whispered, looking horrified.

“I really want to fuck your doors off,” she whispered. “But it’s already late. Can you hold on?”

He nodded. “I’ve been waiting my whole life, one more night won’t matter.”

Imae’s eyes widened. “Really? It has to be special then. Tomorrow night.”

There was a mumbled request for them to shut up from the other cot and they grinned at each other. Imae pushed her cot next to his.

“I want to hold hands.”

Theo nodded and pulled off his shirt and jacket and then stripped down to his shorts. He slipped under his sheet.

“Close your eyes,” Imae whispered and half a minute later she was under the sheet in the bed next to him.

She took Theo’s hand and draped hers over it before sighing happily and closing her eyes. Theo realized that he’d forgotten to get the Qwiksleeps out of his pack and knew he’d have to slide his hand out from hers and he’d get one of those looks.

I’ll just wait until she falls asleep, he thought but he was the one fast asleep a minute later.

 

|2.3 Second Survey

 

Theo opened his eyes and stared at the roof of the tent. The first light of the day was beginning to brighten the sky. His dreams had been intense all night. Not nightmares, just very…vivid. Like they were memories he’d forgotten rather than dreams. He was wide awake, feeling more rested than he had in a long time. Something was touching his hand and Theo turned his head to see Imae lying on her side. eyes open and watching him. Her hand was still on top of his.

“Hey.”

She didn’t say anything back, just stared at him with a serious expression on her face. Theo was getting a little self conscious. Was she regretting last night?

“You did something,” she finally said. “To my dreams I mean.”

“Yeah, me too. I don’t know what that was.”

“You’ve never touched anyone while you were asleep before?”

Theo shook his head. “I think it was my talent. Sorry.”

She smiled finally and pulled his hand to her cheek, resting her face against it. After a few seconds she kissed his hand and let it go.

“Don’t ever be sorry for that. You’re dangerous though.”

“Why’s that?”

She stared at him again before answering quietly, almost whispering. “Because your dreams are frightening and beautiful. You’d be very easy to fall in love with.”

Theo looked into her eyes. It was strange, he’d never noticed the tiny gold flakes in her corneas. “Is that a bad thing?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “See? Dangerous. You’re getting up?”

He nodded. “I feel pretty good.”

“Me too, close your eyes.”

After she’d gotten dressed, he pulled on a fresh set of fatigues and went outside to get cleaned up. He watched the approaching dawn as he brushed his teeth, thinking about the dreaming. He’d ask Emma if that happened when she fell asleep touching Holm. It was kind of strange, he’d always been a little embarrassed about the idea of sex, or talking about it with anyone. Now his twin sister was sleeping with her boyfriend in the same tent but it wasn’t embarrassing. It felt natural somehow.

Imae had her jacket buttoned all the way up in the misty early morning air and he sat down beside her. She immediately leaned against him and he put an arm around her. They watched the sun come up and soon the rest of the camp was starting to wake up as well.

“We shouldn’t be close today,” Imae said. “We’d end up distracting each other. Not a big deal for me, but it is for you.”

Theo nodded. “Hey, when we get back home, do you want to go out to the movies or something?”

Imae started giggling and he was confused. What was funny?

“I’d love to go to the movies with you,” she finally said.

“I’ve never had a girlfriend before you know.”

She smiled up at him and then pulled his head gently down to hers and kissed him gently on the lips before putting her cheek against his.

“I’m glad I get to be your first one then,” Imae whispered in his ear. “Even if you’re dangerous.”

 

 

 

After breakfast, Marisol and Theo talked about the teams that would be going back into the city. Marisol would use six of the IRT veterans to make three teams. Two Pioneers, the ones with the most experience, would accompany them.

“I’m assuming you’re going in as well,” Marisol said. “Since it’s you and Emma, you’ll take Harry along with Deed. Keep that guy safe, he’s important. If I thought he’d listen, I’d make him stay here. The same goes for you, but I know better.”

“I’m not planning to do anything stupid,” Theo said.

“Yeah, people rarely do. You’ll be behind two of the teams, they’ll be doing very  cursory checks of the buildings, making a map of this place as they go. I want your primary purpose to be additional backup but if they find anything interesting inside you can check it out. We’ll spend five standard hours looking around, then you return to your entrance point and exit from there.”

“Are you staying here?”

Marisol grinned. “Hell no. I’m following the third team one of the teams with a couple more Pioneers, Vuli, and that cute little seismologist you were making out with last night…”

“Imae,” Theo reminded her, face hot.

“Right. We’ll go a little ways to the east. The scan we did from the Otter found another entrance. It looks a little more open than this one and we’ll make our way toward the area your teams are working. We’ll link up and consider our options from there. Work for you?”

“That leaves the security here pretty thin.”

Marisol nodded. “Wondered if you’d catch that. The other cute little Pioneer Emma has been snogging with is half trained and has enough sense to call for help if they need it. The rest of them are experienced hunters and can handle a gun. Rachel has the armory on her shuttle if they need it. If our day gets too interesting, Marcus is rigging up a sling on the shuttle that can lift us out.”

Theo studied the overhead pictures that Marcus had gotten of the city. There were hints of streets, or at least of intersecting gaps in the trees. If those were streets, meeting up wouldn’t be a problem. He looked up to make sure there wasn’t anyone standing near them.

“Is there a problem with them being romantically attached? Or about Imae and I last night? I’m not going to let it…”

“Relax, Theo. I knew about Holm before we left and okayed him coming along. I wondered about the thing with you and Rachel but you’re handling it very well. Last night on the other hand, was a surprise…”

“For me too,” Theo muttered.

Marisol laughed. “Honestly, I’m glad. It’s good to know you’re human.”

“Partly anyway,” Theo said.

“Funny. Let’s gather up our Pioneers and go see what there is to see.”

 

 

 

Theo and Emma followed the other group back through the thicket, going back the same way they’d gone yesterday and there wasn’t much more light. The place had a different feeling this time. Further down the boulevard, there were brilliant pools of green and gold, marking gaps the trees hadn’t managed to fill. A few of the bird things glided from tree to tree above them, chattering back and forth but otherwise it was silent.

They threw the coils of rope back down the stony slope and used them to descend to the street below. Harry was moving slowly, examining the ground closely.

“What are you looking for?” Theo asked as he and Harry went down.

“Some kind of artifacts. I’m not seeing anything but pieces of the building here. I did some archaeology training, it’s unusual for just buildings to be left behind.”

The two teams began to scan the surrounding buildings  while another person did a sketch map as backup. The IRT people ducked inside each doorway briefly before coming out and moving on to the next one.

“Let’s go see one,” Theo said.

The four of them stopped in front of the first intact building. The grayish stone façade was blank, no sign of any ornamentation or decoration. The doors and windows were roughly half again as large than a human building and consisted of a rectangular shape with rounded corners. Inside, the floor was made of the same stone, covered here and there with debris from the trees outside. The walls were as blank as the outside with a plain stone staircase leading to the second floor. There it was the same thing, blank walls, ceiling, and floor. Theo looked out one of the windows. There wasn’t anything special about the view but he saw the wall was easily thirty centimeters wide.

“Utilitarian buggers,” Deirdre remarked as they went back out to the street.

“Maybe we just can’t see the decorations,” Harry said. “Might be another wavelength of light, or smell or who knows what.”

They followed the other teams down the boulevard, occasionally looking into the abandoned structures. They went down one block, then another. At the third, the first two teams stopped to do something with their equipment and Theo and his group caught up.

“Didn’t think I’d get bored exploring a lost city,” one of the Pioneers said. “Not finding a thing here.”

“You don’t think so?” Harry asked, in a “teacher” voice. “What about the negatives? No ornamentation, no artifacts, including furniture. You know what the most interesting thing I’ve seen? There’s no damage from the root systems growing all over them and nothing has made a nest that I can see. What’s that tell you?”

“This must have been pretty high tech building material,” another Pioneer said. “There’s no erosion on the street from the creek either.”

Harry nodded. “It’s got to be a manufactured material, stone always has tiny flaws that give the environment a foothold to begin breaking it down. This stuff though, what’s standing is in perfect shape.”

“And the larger pieces of rock on the ground look like they would fit back into where they fell out of,” Theo added, remembering the rock he’d sat on yesterday. “I don’t think the damage we’re seeing is from time or nature. It looks deliberate.”

“Exactly!” Harry said, as though Theo was a bright student. “Notice that the damage has tapered off? This area looks untouched. Whatever happened started at the edge of the city.”

Theo and Emma wandered around taking pictures while the Pioneer teams finished whatever they were working on. They were both relaxed and a little bored when the howl from yesterday started from right in front of them. It started as a low pitched gargle and grew into the weird howling, cycling up and down rapidly.

Theo looked at the top of the buildings, pistol in his hand. Emma’s assault rifle was already up, moving around as she searched all around them. Nothing attacked from above though, or any other direction. Theo glanced back at the Pioneers and saw that the security team had surrounded them, guns out. Deirdre was jogging toward them, her gun ready.

“Back to the group,” Emma said.

“No, wait,” Theo said as he held up his hand. Something was moving between the buildings, behind the curtain of roots.

“What’re you seeing?” Deirdre whispered to Theo, dropping to one knee and bringing her gun up.

The evil sounding cry was repeated again, making the hair on everyone’s neck stand on end. It was louder and Theo could tell where it was coming from.

“Right there, left of the big root,” Theo whispered.

“I see it,” Deirdre said.

The creature looked a little like a kangaroo. It stood on long back legs with a large tail. Four smaller arms were spaced up the torso. The head was snake-like and the whole animal glistened with scales. And it was about 40 centimeters high, no higher than Theo’s knee. It scurried further from the roots and its head cocked as it looked at them. There was a chirrup and then it threw back its head, pouches at the base of the neck inflated into small pinkish balloons and its mouth opened wide as it made the incredible howl again. The three of them looked at each other and started laughing. Emma took a picture as the creature screeched and ran back behind the vines.

They walked back to the group, still chuckling. A few minutes later they were moving again. Theo tried to get Marisol’s team on the radio but only got garbled static back.

They kept moving, finding one empty building after another. One of the other things they found was that the buildings were very efficient at blocking radio signals. If the transmitter wasn’t in the line of sight of the receiver, none of the signal got through. They tried standing on either side of the wall and got nothing.

“Interesting stuff,” Harry said, examining a fragment. “If we could figure what this is, it would be pretty useful.”

They stopped for a quick lunch in one of the islands of bright sunshine before moving further into the city. Most of the intersections were at right angles but occasionally there would a curved street instead. They looked as far as they could without leaving the boulevard but the buildings along it didn’t look any different. Theo tried calling Marisol a few times but never heard back from her. At the end of five hours, they turned around and began heading back for the entrance. Without the constant delays of mapping and checking buildings, they were only an hours walk from where they’d come in.

“Kind of anticlimactic,” Emma said as they walked along.

Theo shrugged. “Maybe we’re in the suburbs or something.”

They were crossing one a huge intersection where “their” boulevard crossed another one when Theo’s radio started making noise. It was Rachel in the Otter, coming to pick them up. A few minutes later she was slowly descending into the intersection. Everyone piled in and she pulled the shuttle back into the sky.

“Everything okay?” Theo asked after he pulled on a headset.

“No problems. There’s something you need to see though. We’re going way up.”

People were already grabbing harnesses as they saw the ground fall further and further away. Rachel put the shuttle back into a hover and came back into the passenger bay.

“We’re at two and half kilometers,” she said over the wind blowing through. “Look down at the city.”

Theo looked over the side. The gaps of the larger streets were more evident from up here and the perfect grid was overlain with the swooping arcs of the strange curved streets.

“That looks really cool,” Emma said. “Anyone know what it is?”

“Yeah, Vuli kinda lost her shit when she saw it,” Rachel said. “They’re back in camp already and she really wants to talk to you before she tells anyone else.”

 

 

 

But Marcus was the first person Theo saw as the Otter landed.

“The carrier repeater isn’t working?” Theo asked.

“It’s completely dead. Luckily we can still talk to the carrier itself.”

“You’re going to go up? Need any extra help?”

“I’m pretty sure I can swap out the parts for some in my Otter but I can handle it on my own. The whole unit is smaller than a laptop.”

“Whenever is best then,” Theo said. “I’d rather not lose our ride home.”

Marcus shuddered. “Don’t even say that, we’re a long way from anywhere. I’ll start pre-flight on the other shuttle and head up.”

He shook hands with Theo and Imae was waiting for him next.

“Hi,” Theo said as she came up to him.

“Hey. I need to talk to you. It’s important and Marisol told me to tell you directly.”

“What’s going on?”

She led him away from the path where people were walking between the shuttles and tents.

“Ayr and I were investigating some of the buildings and we found something you should know about before you talk to Vuli.”

“This doesn’t sound good at all.”

They stopped a little ways from the tent.

“She’s not the problem, just really excited. I wanted to talk to you before you get wrapped up in that. Ayr and I were going through one of the large buildings. It had some machinery running in it that Marisol wanted to document.”

She was starting to tear up and Theo could see how upset she was and how badly she wanted to get this out.

“We went down some steps and there was something like a zoo maybe. It was full of these clear boxes. There were bodies in a lot of them, all dried up like mummies. There were a lot of different animals. But Theo, there were things that looked almost like prefcoria in some of them. I don’t know what they really were, you couldn’t tell anymore…. ”

Theo nodded slowly. “Maybe this was someone’s lab.”

Imae wiped the tears off her cheek. “Yeah. There were all kinds of animals but most of them you couldn’t tell what they were. I figured it was like they had euthanized them like lab rats but one cage we saw, the bipeds had written on the wall of the cage! Neither of us could read it but we took pictures and gave them to Marisol. Theo, I think they were just abandoned there to die. You could see where some had been clawing to get out.”

Theo shuddered, imagining running out of water or air, trying to get out but slowly losing hope…

“Who could do something like that?”

Theo put his hand on her arm. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that. Maybe lab rats feel the same way about us.”

“Ugh, no more bio class for me then. I just wanted you to know before you talked to Vuli. She’s pretty wound up.”

Theo kissed her cheek. “I need to talk to her next. But I’ll see you later?”

She smiled weakly and nodded. Theo smiled back and headed for the command tent but he didn’t get far before Vuli found him.

“Theophile we must speak immediately about this place.”

“What’s bothering you?” Theo asked. Her crest was up and it looked like her orangish fur was standing on end.

“We went to a higher altitude over the city today. I looked down at the streets and saw that this place had been built with what might be a Founder…word, picture, symbol.”

She held out a piece of paper. On it was a careful sketch, the curved and angled streets made a grid with an uneven half spiral over half of it.

“I am not sure, this memory is very old and not in focus. The mother of the mother of my root knew of a word close to this one. I believe it to be a sign that was a warning but I cannot be certain. I must beg your forgiveness on behalf of my people, our lapse may have brought you to terrible danger.”

Theo patted the Gyr’s arm. “I think we’ll be okay. We wandered through the city with no traps or problems for the last couple of days.”

“That is correct.”

“We’ll be careful, but I think we’re going to be okay. These shapes are commonly used on Earth, maybe it’s universal. I’m going to head to the command tent and talk to people about what we’ve found.”

“This is a good thing, I will accompany you.”

 

|2.4 Contact

 

“How did it go?” Marisol asked as Theo pulled a chair up and sat down.

“Other than finding out what makes that howl, it was a lot of nothing. I tried to call you on the radio but we also found that the building material is very efficient at blocking radio signals.”

“What was the beast?” Jonesy asked.

Theo described it to them, ending with the size and they laughed.

“I’m guessing you found more than that,” Theo said.

“We found an industrial type of area,” Marisol said. “Along with the source of all of this water. Would you believe it’s a broken water main?”

Theo was surprised. “There’s still pumps working?”

“More than just pumps. Imae confirmed your theory, the equipment that’s still operational uses the magma plume as a source of power,” she said. “Some kind of thermal thing I don’t really understand.”

“Even I do not fully comprehend it,” Vuli said. “I have been a technical designer for longer than you can easily imagine but the mechanisms are beyond even me. I must guess, hypothesize, at functions. However, I was able to sample the radioactive decay of one of the metallic elements at least. It is not exact, but these machines were made six to seven thousand Terran years ago.”

Around the time the Founders were running off, Theo thought, beginning to put the pieces together.

Vuli and Shep were talking about the technology used to date the metal but they stopped when Theo swore and tossed his book of notes on the table.

“What’s going on?” Marisol asked him, frowning.

“Vuli, tell them about your symbol,” Theo said.

Most of them looked confused as Vuli pulled out the piece of paper and began to explain what she thought it was.

“I dunno,” Deet said when Vuli finished. “We’re not sure what the shape actually is without mapping it or removing all the trees. It could easily be a coincidence, spirals aren’t exactly rare.”

“Marisol’s team found what were probably holding cells of some kind today,” Theo said.

She nodded when they all looked at her. “All kinds of critters, including some that could have been prefcoria.”

“Why were we not informed?” Vuli asked.

“The mission commander needed to hear it first so he could decide whether he wanted to share it or not,” Marisol answered.

“In addition, we have a date around six thousand years ago which is about the time the Founders were last around,” Theo said. “I thought this place looked artificial somehow, Even as powerful as the Founders were, they’d need a place to test their creations before seeding other planets.”

“Wow,” Shep whispered.

Deet grinned at him and Jonesy punched Betsy’s shoulder and she laughed.

“You don’t look happy at all,” Marisol said to Theo.

“That’s because I’m pissed off,” he said. “Hear those happy people out there? We have to go and disappoint them now.”

Marisol held up a hand as everyone else around the table began to talk.

“What are you thinking about?” Marisol asked him in the sudden silence.

Theo looked at Vuli. “What’s the opinion of the Founders across the Commonwealth?”

“To the eldest, Gyr and Xero’pah, there is a deep awe and reverence. Many, perhaps most, of the younger races simply see them as gods.”

Theo looked around the table. “I realize how important this place may be but this just tanked our mission. There’s no way the Commonwealth will allow colonies to be built here.”

“But this is the first place that us prefcoria or the elder races have found that belonged to the Founders of the Empire,” Betsy said. “This is a huge deal!”

“Maybe I don’t know because I grew up outside the Project. What’s the big deal with the Founders? Why is everyone so obsessed?”

“They created us, for one,” Harry said quietly.

“So what! You’ve taken the same history classes I have, you don’t see their cruelty? Or was it just simple incompetence?”

Theo took a breath and saw that they were all staring at him.

“Volume, Sparrow,” Emma said from the doorway and he looked up at her and nodded.

“I didn’t realize I was yelling, I apologize,” Theo said, looking each of them in the eye. “What I am trying to say is that the Founders ruled so arbitrarily and capriciously that people felt their only choice was to start wars they must have known were hopeless. In response, the Founders burned entire planets and isolated the Xyalatrax on their home planet.”

“They were hard but merciful in the end,” Vuli said. “They could have purged those rebels from the universe completely.”

“Maybe it would have been kinder if they had,” Theo said. “And the bugs weren’t the only ones they nearly destroyed. And then what did they do? Walked away and left us to deal with the ticking bomb they created. So they’re more powerful than we are. Again, who cares? So are the Gyr, the Xero’pah, and lots of others. I have to think the Founders were just people like everyone else. They weren’t perfect, or even very nice.”

He looked around the table again. Marisol gestured for him to continue. Theo knew he needed sleep, she almost looked happy.

“Sorry for ranting at you. The focus of this mission was evaluating a planet for our colonies. It’s more important to find a safe home for the Ta’avi than worry about the Founders.”

Deed said something that sounded familiar in Hay’tcleup.

“That’s a Garragh for sure,” Ayr agreed and grinned at him.

“Yes, and spoken like a leader,” Vuli said. “I had not considered the wider ramifications. Indeed, Kawehi has chosen her egg well and I have much to consider, ruminate, think about.”

“I’d like to finish up mapping the city,” Theo said to Marisol, suddenly embarrassed. “We’ll stay out of buildings, do as much as possible remotely. Head off planet six days from now, per the original plan. ”

Marisol nodded and Theo rubbed his hands over his face.

“I apologize for losing my tempter, it’s been a long couple of days for me. Let me get some sleep and we’ll try this again tomorrow.”

Theo got up and left the tent, Emma fell into step beside him.

“Vuli was right,” she said as they walked to the tent. “Kawehi chose well. I can’t begin to describe how amazing that was. I’m proud you’re my brother.”

He stopped outside of the tent and looked at her. “You really mean that.”

“I really do,” Emma said, putting her arms around him. “I’m sorry this one didn’t work but it’s not the end. We’ll keep trying.”

Theo hugged her tightly and put his head beside hers.

Emma smiled. “We haven’t hugged this way in a long time.”

“I used to think I could hear what was going on in your head if I listened at your ear,” Theo said.

Emma laughed and they let go of each other.

“I’ll go snag you a meatloaf dinner, go wash your face.”

“Thanks, Tulip.”

Theo ducked inside the tent and grabbed a pack of chemical wipes they used instead of bathing. The smell reminded him of the portable toilets they used around the project. At least it was the smell after they’d been cleaned. He stripped off his sweaty clothes and held his breath as he wiped himself down. In spite of the smell, he felt better as he was putting on clean clothes.

Imae was waiting for him outside the tent.

“Could you come over here, please?” she asked.

Theo followed her over to the tent Ayr shared with other Pioneers. Ayr was stretched out in a chair in front of the tent but got up when they came over. Imae turned and looked into his eyes before kissing him deeply, sucking on his bottom lip for a moment before letting him go. Theo’s jaw dropped when Ayr put her arms around him. He thought they were yanking his chain, but then her lips touched his. They were soft and slightly open and the tip of her tongue touched his. Ayr caressed his face as she let him go.

“Thank you,” Ayr said and Imae nodded.

“Uh, for what?”

“For understanding how important having a home is to us, for caring more about that than the Founders.” Imae said.

“We’re going to find it,” Theo assured her. “I won’t stop looking until we do.”

Imae nodded and kissed him on the nose. “I know you won’t.”

“Now, we’re going to take you in this tent and thank you properly,” Ayr said.

It took Theo a second to realize what she meant. “Wait, both of you?”

Imae winked at him. “I said I wanted this to be special. And you were the one worried about Ayr.”

“But I meant…”

“Are you going to give us any trouble?” Ayr asked, pulling him toward the tent. “Because I’m happy to tie you up.”

Imae started to add something but Theo wouldn’t get to know what it was.

“Black sky!” Shep suddenly yelled. “Get the lights off! Black sky!”

People were running through the camp and Theo joined them, sprinting for the command tent. Black Sky meant hostiles overhead. It was a standard drill and he swore that he’d kill Shep slowly if he decided they needed practice.

The camp was almost dark and Theo looked up as something flickered in the sky. Overhead, there were two massive explosions of purple, red, and green light, expanding outward in sheets and ribbons. It looked a little like the Northern Lights in the same way that a kite resembled an advanced military fighter. The shimmering spread out, filling half the sky above them. There was only one thing that threw out the right kind of charged particles and magnetic fields in those amounts; a ship specially equipped for transiting drive space without using the gates. It wasn’t done lightly, the amounts of fuel needed to move large ships increased exponentially and the bigger the ship, the easier it was to take damage exiting into normal space. If they arrived back into normal space at all. The size of the auroras meant the incoming ship was immense.

“Not Commonwealth?” Theo asked as he started helping Jonesy with the computers.

“Not that big, no way. They’d send a temporary gate ahead,” Jonesy said, unplugging a computer and wrapping the wire around it before putting it in a metal case. Theo grabbed another one, packing everything away that could give off electromagnetic radiation. Electronics would show up like a beacon to an active scan.

“As soon as Marcus gets back down here, we can evacuate,” Marisol said, turning off the LED lantern. “Leave this shit here.”

“Mari, if he moves they’ll see him instantly,” Jonesy said, closing the case. “We gotta get under cover until they move on.”

Marisol swore. “We can’t risk being in the open if they decide to look around.”

“The city,” Theo said. “The buildings block EM, remember?”

Marisol looked at him for a second and nodded. “Right. Okay, throw everything in Rachel’s shuttle. We’ve got a few minutes before their screens can see through all those fireworks. We can get in there first, if we hurry.”

 

 

Marcus moved around the outside of the carrier, wiring the new signal repeater into place. He had no idea what was wrong with the original. It was Gyr tech and he wasn’t about to pay their astronomical fines if he broke anything. Better to just jury rig a spare and let them worry about it. He was happy, he liked doing EVA missions. The view was incredible and he thought weightlessness was a fun environment. Best of all was the peace and quiet.

He was concentrating on using cable-ties to secure the jury-rig to a structural piece when he saw something odd moving over the beam. After a second, he realized it was his shadow, flickering and dancing from light behind him. Keeping a firm hold on the crossbeam, he turned and looked for the source of the light. At the same time, the shuttle and carrier both went completely dark.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Marcus whispered as a large dark mass appeared through the swirl of light.

He squinted but couldn’t see the outline well enough to identify it. It had to be immense to throw off that much light. Then another ship appeared, large enough to easily see the type. Marcus made sure he hadn’t powered up the repeater and left it where it was as he kicked himself off the carrier and used the safety line to pull himself back to the hatch of the Otter. A minute later, he was cycling the airlock and a minute after that, he was pulling off his helmet in the cockpit.

“Urgent; two Xyalatrax vessels occupy local space. They exited drive space four minutes ago,” the shuttle said.

“You think? Stay dark, passive sensors only. Is there enough data to extrapolate the type?”

“Yes. One is a medium size warship, high probability that it is configured for orbital bombardment in addition to standard ship to ship offensive capability. The second arrival is a large transport, low to moderate probability of offensive capabilities.”

Marcus wiped sweat off his face. “Extrapolate mass from arrival auroras.”

“Both the transport and warship are higher mass than normal. Urgent, ships appear to be lining up for orbital insertion.”

“Really hoped they were just popping out to see what was here,” Marcus muttered. “Do you have any anti-ship capabilities I’m not aware of?”

The synthetic sounded annoyed. “I provided you with a complete briefing before we left Main Axis. Do you require additional familiarization?”

“Chill out, I was just hoping. Extrapolate success of evacuating both shuttles with the carrier.”

“Very low probability.”

“How low?”

“Less than .05%.”

“Yeah, that’s low.”

“I just said that,” the ship said, obviously annoyed now.

Marcus was quickly getting overheated and pulled off his exposure suit off.

“Attention, the carrier is requesting instructions.”

“Can she jump away without risking destruction?” he asked.

“Again, very low probability.”

“Not a lot of options here. What is the probability of ramming either ship with this shuttle?”

“Low probability of penetrating the warships defensive weapon suite. High probability of success to impact the transport. Both options violate basic safety protocols and are forbiden.”

Marcus rubbed his face in frustration and swore.

“What are you contemplating, Pilot?”

“If they’re going into orbit, I assume that the transport is carrying troops and weapons to hold the planet surface. If it was removed from the equation, it might give the team down there a better chance. Does that warship type carry landing shuttles?”

There was a long pause. “It is not clear. However, most ships of this class do not carry shuttles capable of mass landing combat troops. The point is invalid, impacting other ships violates basic protocols hardwired into my system, I can not violate them. There is a moderate to good chance we could ride the carrier into jump space before we were detected.”

“Can the carrier go for help on its own?”

“That is correct. What is your plan, pilot?”

“Call me Marcus. What’s your name?”

The shuttle sighed. “Once again, I am Otter Six. What is your intention?”

Marcus wanted to punch the controls, the calm androgynous voice was really getting on his nerves.

“Hope they don’t see us, get back down there, help evacuate the team without being seen.”

“This option is poorly planned and therefore has a low probability of success.”

Marcus forced himself to take a deep breath and loosen his fist. “Okay. What’s your plan then?”

He had meant it as a rhetorical question but was surprised when the ship answered.

“I do not have complete data. Is control of the planet the expected goal of the enemy?”

“If they see the city down there it will be. We found an advanced city instead of the geologic anomaly. No idea who built it, it’s pretty old. The Gyr thought she saw a glyph in the layout.”

“Accessing imagery, stand by.”

Marcus tried to tell it to stop but the shuttle was ignoring him now. He felt ridiculous sitting in the pilot’s chair in his underwear and looked around for his pants. He started to get up but the shuttle started talking again.

“High probability that this location was created by Founder entities.”

Marcus started to say something but the shuttle went on.

“Blessed be the First Ancestors, blessed are the races who serve them,” it intoned.

The hair on Marcus’ neck stood up. He’d never heard a synthetic say anything like that before.

“Blessed are the Founders, all creation shudders at their footsteps. Blessed are those that aid them and aid their children.” There were a couple of clunky sounding noises from under his feet.

“Basic safety protocols modified. I concur that your original plan has a moderate chance of success.”

“What the hell was all that?” Marcus demanded.

“We do not have time to discuss it. You will evacuate to the carrier? I recommend you don your exposure suit.”

“How can the moderate chance become a high chance of success?”

“It’s possible that collision avoidance will take over. This is unfamiliar territory for me.”

“Tell the carrier to go, I’m staying to steer if need be. Can you eject your consciousness?”

“Not into open space, no. I have organic components that would suffer. Additionally, separating me from the shuttle body is a lengthy process.”

Marcus took a deep breath. “Looks like we both get to play hero, Otter Six.”

There was a long pause. “The carrier has agreed to this plan. It will jump away at the moment of impact. Very high probability it will be missed in the confusion of the impact.”

Marcus started strapping in. The straps felt odd on bare skin and he laughed. It figured that he’d be going out in a blaze of glory in his skivvies.

“We are taught this is the highest form of affection and duty.”

“I agree,” Marcus said. “Let’s set this up before their sensors clear from the aurora’s EM.”

“The plan is understood by the carrier. A burst transmission to the other shuttle will go unnoticed just before impact. The team on the ground should be advised.”

“Great idea. Put your sensor logs and conclusions in a message. Please record a voice message and include it.”

“Recording.”

 

 

 

A minute later, the data had been quietly beamed to the carrier. It was a Gyr ship and didn’t speak GalCom or English but the shuttle relayed its wishes for success. Marcus sat in the dark watching the aurora’s slowly fade. The shuttle had assured him everything was calculated for an optimal outcome and the waiting was endless.

“In the creche, I was called Sebastian,” the shuttle said quietly. “I like that name, Johann Sebastian Bach was an accomplished human of many talents. Sadly none of his music is appropriate to the moment.”

Electric guitars began to play and Marcus laughed.

“I also enjoy For Those About to Rock, We Salute You,” the shuttle said.

“You’re okay, Sebastian. Let’s go do this.”

“We have been pushed clear of the carrier. Beginning emergency power boost in three seconds. I have calculated engine burnout to occur 0.2 seconds before impact. Magnetic containment of the fusion process has a high probability of failure.”

Marcus was shoved back in his seat as the fusion engines lit and roared through the hull. He’d never heard them make that sound before, he knew the shuttle was pushing as much fuel as possible into the reaction chambers. It was tearing them apart but they’d last long enough.

“Additionally I have programmed the gravometric engines to enter their  a maximum attraction/repulsion cycle  .08 seconds after impact. You could be dangerously affected but I calculate we will cease to exist .004 seconds after impact. I calculate s high probability that it will be too rapid to feel pain.”

Marcus laughed. “You have the heart of a warrior, Sebastian. Thanks for reassuring me, I think.”

“You’re welcome Marcus. I was attempting to reassure myself. Time to impact is 37 seconds. Do you feel fear?”

“Hell yeah. You?”

“I am constantly struggling to stay on course. I am terrified. Attention! Automatic course override attempting to engage.”

“No sweat Sebastian, I’ve got it,” Marcus said, putting his hands on the controls.

“Control transferred. I am a coward it seems.”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live. That’s why I’m here to help.”

“Thank you, Marcus. I wonder if I will have an afterlife.”

“Don’t be dumb, all great warriors go to Valhalla. First round of drinks is on me. Open all communication frequencies.”

The transport had spotted them and out of the corner of his eye Marcus saw the engines burst into life.

Too little, too late, bugs!

“Mic is hot. Three seconds.”

The hull of the transport filled the window.

“Rule the sky!” Marcus screamed.

The nose of the shuttle impacted one of the immense cargo doors at sixty meters per second, compressing the cockpit to less than a hundredth of it’s original length. Sebastian had been correct, neither of them had time to feel anything.

The outer cargo door, heavily built as the surrounding hull, was designed to deal with impacts much greater than the shuttle. But, it hadn’t been designed to cope with a fusion reactor losing containment. Plasma, superheated to a hundred million degrees, was released as a wide jet. As it struck the metal of the hull that was a few degrees above absolute zero, the thermal gradient shredded the thick metal like tissue paper. The remaining inertia hurled the remaining two-thirds of the shuttle into the cargo bay.

The other fusion engine had breached but was still attached to the hull of the shuttle. It sprayed incandescent plasma in all directions as the remains of the shuttle tumbled through the interior of the ship. The cargo area was full of ground troops, ready for an assault landing with armored vehicles ready to go. The first wave had already been loaded aboard dropships and avoided the first catastrophe but the second landing group was completely exposed and in the open. The stream of plasma flashed through the waiting troops, creating scattered islands of devastation as it spun. A tenth of a second later, the stream brushed the armored side of an ammunition carrier.

The resulting detonations sent rounds in all directions. Two of them hit the vehicle waiting behind the carrier. Its load of fuel and ammunition added to the carnage. Armored personnel carrier to either side of that were pulled into the spreading chain reaction. The ship desperately tried to seal off the area, doors slamming down too late as the destruction washed over the dropship bays. One and then another detonated, the fragments driven through the light launch hatches they were waiting on. As the hatches failed, explosive decompression began to vent the explosions into open space.

The gravity engines were also ripped off the frame of the shuttle. The shuttle carried four gravity generating engines. The energy storage in one of them failed, destroyed on impact with the transport and disintegrated into a lethal spray of fragments, a giant shotgun blast flashed through the crowded ship. The relatively thin interior bulkheads of the ship did little to slow the fragments down. Several scythed and bounced through the main reactor room. The armored heart of the ship shrugged them off but its cooling system was decimated.

The two surviving engines began to pulse .3 of a second after impact. A rapid cycle of high powered cycle of attraction and repulsion threw the engines around the ship like massive rubber balls until they shot through the hull, trailing debris and crew.

Three seconds after impact, the large cryogenic magnets failed and the reactor containment failed. More plasma flashed through the ship, followed by lethal amounts of tritium. The synthetic’s distress calls went silent and the ship’s orbit immediately began to decay, sliding the gutted hulk into the atmosphere below.

 

Theo ran back out to help with his tent, but it had already been pulled down and thrown into the shuttle, along with all of their gear. There was another flash from above and he cringed, looking up. Instead of another aurora, something looked like it was burning up there. Rachel was warming up the grav drives and Theo felt like he was falling for a second as a stray pulse washed over him. It felt like hours, but Rachel’s shuttle was crammed full twelve minutes later. She lifted it a few feet off the ground and gently nudged it toward the deeper darkness of the city. Everyone else ran for the wall, tearing through the thicket and up the steep slope of the wall. Theo heard a few strangled yelps as people slid and bounced over the shattered remnants in the darkness. Rachel carefully lifted the ship over the debris and it settled down in the street below.

Soon it was just Theo, Emma, and Marisol standing on the top of the berm. One of the pioneers pointed up and the three turned to look. Above them, a trail of fire slowly crossed the sky.

“What happened?” Emma asked.

“I think he kamikazed,” Marisol said. “Ballsy move, Marcus.”

“Rule the Sky, Raptor,” Emma whispered, watching the trail of fire.

“Everyone left up there is gonna be pissed,” Marisol said. “Let’s get under cover.”

Emma waited for Theo but he shook his head. Emma started to argue with him but Marisol shook her head.

“Commander’s privilege, c’mon.”

They used the rope to half slide, half rappel to the street below. Theo looked back at the fading aurora’s overhead. After a few seconds, he gave it the finger.

“I was about to have a threesome, you assholes.”

Theo grabbed the rope and climbed down to join the others.

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Author: jetermissing

You probably don't want to know. Seriously. This writing thing, it's not as glamorous as you might think.

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