A Preview of a Hard Sci-fi Thriller Currently in Development!
Like tiny little chinks in the canopy of heaven…
Countless beams of microscopic amber light flicker on and off to recreate a small-scale 360-degree view of the Galaxy. The Commander stood alone in a dim room. He always had the same strange feeling whenever the hologram booted up. An uneasy mixture of melancholy and amazement as the imitation stars rapidly came to life one by one. His current position, highlighted in a deep red, quickly becomes indistinguishable from the billions of façade dust specks that make up a 3D image of The Milky Way.
He always felt that there was something inherently shameful about this miniature display of the Galaxy, something in it being condensed to a single room, and the same question always flashed across his mind just before the hologram finished rendering: Is this it? He knew the Galaxy was bigger than he thought it was, the Universe bigger than he could ever imagine it to be, yet despite this, humankind, with its self-proclaimed advanced technology and arbitrary numbering systems, likes to think it’s got everything figured out. Every known place in the Galaxy had been categorized leaving no ambiguity as to space travel between the stars, even if it would take multiple lifetimes just to get to some of them. One would awake from cryostasis to find the life they knew before akin to a distant speck, another indistinguishable dot on the void’s horizon, forever out of reach.
Down here in the bowels of the ship you had no sense of location without a real-time map like this one. You wouldn’t know that an entire existence lay outside of the stark metal walls and the cold electrical humming of the computers. At times he felt that If he could just take a look out of a window it wouldn’t feel so bad, it wouldn’t feel so insignificant; an entire galaxy of wonder reduced to a cramped room, sectioned off into viable and non-viable sections of space marked for possible expansion. But then again there were no windows on the ship for fear of structural integrity. If a window gave out during a jump between systems, there’d be nothing but an empty husk arriving at its destination – either that or the ship would implode into oblivion, cheerful.
He’d heard stories of Earth, the famous ‘Cradle of Humanity’, but he’d never been there himself and to his knowledge, no one else on the ship had either. Besides, it served little more than a weepy-eyed tourist flyby now as most of the planet’s surface was currently inhospitable from the extreme heat and vast ocean channels that submerged most of its primitive civilizations in the great climate disaster of the 2100’s. Instead what remained of the native Earthlings could be found in the smattering of Asimovian City Spheres – man made megastructures of sub-surface metallic domes – that housed their space-fearing, xenophobic population; indeed, it had been almost a thousand years since the last Earth city sealed itself away from the cosmos and longer still since the last meeting between Earthmen and those from the extrasolar systems.
‘Ancient history’, the thought put the Commander in a contemplative mood. Earth’s ancient astronomers named this particular constellation ‘Ophiuchus’ or ‘Serpent-Bearer’; apparently because from Earth it looks like a man holding a snake – a long-extinct sort of stringy animal that either ate or spat out poison, he couldn’t remember. He thought it strange that these ancient stargazers had no starships of their own, instead having to rely on eyesight and a pinch of imagination to make sense of their night sky. Funny, if he were asked right now to point out Earth’s star cluster on imagination alone he wouldn’t know where to begin. Hell, even if he did it would be near impossible to distinguish it from the billions of other specks lighting up the room. Anno Centauri – that’s what people started calling the years back on Earth after the first successful faster-than-light jump to a new system, although the standardization of years holds little meaning when traveling the Galaxy (whenever you move in space away becomes farer into the past and to becomes more present). The ancient sidereal year would put Earth at 4573AD, while other star systems used their own local AC time format, established anew when a planet within the system is first colonized. However, the sexagesimal time system was still used on the small scale as mankind’s hand had not changed its form over the millennia and the notion of minute and hour was still pertinent in moment-to-moment life.
“Enhance our coordinates, room-scale.” the Commander issued to the room in a cold, gravelly voice, “Include relative velocity overlay on nearby astronomical bodies.” Talking to himself was easy when the computers were always listening. Almost immediately the hologram responded by re-rendering the image to his specifications, a quiet, almost imperceptible electrical hum indicating the processing work of the holo table. The billions of dust specks wistfully reduced to a trio of planets, the system’s host star, and various tracked anomalies – objects too small to be classified, most likely space debris and the like.
‘So, there it is,’ he thought, ‘Wolf 1061c,’ the planet the ship was headed to. It looked remarkably plain, a reddish-brown world of mostly rock and crater. ‘Why in the Galaxy would anybody set up base here?‘ He couldn’t shake the feeling that this was going to be one of those rare occasions where he’d rather stay on the ship than go traipsing about planetside. But then again, he’d a job to do and the Core wasn’t paying by the hour.
The Observation Module was unique to this class of starship, a massive 9th-gen FTL Starjumper. Originally designed in the early days of mankind’s extrasolar voyages, the Starjumpers were primarily meant for research and exploration of distant star systems as well as deep space. This ship was designated ‘The Shadow of War’ and repurposed for military use, specifically for covert operations and reconnaissance. The state-of-the-art engine cores gave it a decently large jump range, allowing the ship to easily move in and out of conflict zones or respond quickly to crisis events. The Commander had seen quite a few worlds prosper and many more burn while aboard, occasionally playing his own part in the destruction. ‘Where there is life there is conflict,’ he thought, ‘be it resources, territory, or ideology; people will always find excuses for killing each other…’
His fanciful musing is interrupted by the mechanical hiss of a door opening behind him. In walked Lieutenant Frakes, his second-in-command, with a datapad in hand and with his trademark brisk strutter.
Over the years Frakes had proven himself to be dependable and level-headed no matter the situation. Serving alongside the Team for almost a decade, he and the Commander fought through hell together and shared a bond stronger than blood. Beneath his set of faded blue eyes lay the visible stress lines of a strategist; indeed, he was instrumental in constructing many of the mission tactics and plans employed by the Team and was distinguished by his quiet, serene-like countenance both on and off the field. He was of a strong build, same as the Commander, sported tight, dark-brown hair and a rough beard that just about violated regulation. Frakes was also the Team’s resident weapons expert. If ever there was a need for some fine-tuning work done or modifications on gear that the Core Worlds would deem ‘unethical’, Frakes was the go to guy.
In the dim amber glow of the holographic galaxy Frakes took up a position beside the Commander, addressing him in his usual calm tone, “Commander, we’re ETA eight hours out from the drop zone,” he looked up from the datapad, his brow serious and frowned as it always was, as if permanently deep in thought, “the rest of the Team are waiting on the briefing. LOTUS will run them through the basics, but we’re all anxious to know what we’re really doing out here.”
“In due time Lieutenant,” the Commander reassured, “the Core has enacted a Terse-X mandate for this operation. it’s all need-to-know, even for me. I’ll be down for the briefing momentarily.”
Frakes gave him an affirmative nod before returning through the door. The Commander took in another minute or two of the holographic galaxy before taking the service elevator down to the Operations Deck.
The Operations Deck, as per usual, was buzzing with activity. A never ending stream of information flashed across terminal screens, some of which was relayed to the flight crew and various technicians onboard, but most of it was pumped into the Low-Orbit Telemetric Uber System, or LOTUS, the on-board super AI responsible for managing the ship’s tertiary subsystems as well as coordinating the ground teams. LOTUS essentially acted as the eyes and ears out on the field, capable of providing real-time updates on everything from battlefield layouts to changes in weather conditions all from orbit. For an operation such as this, the ship remains in orbit as a team embarks on a planet’s surface, the AI and crew can then communicate with that ground team via the ship’s long range antennae, keeping track of personnel location and status while feeding them crucial mission information.
As he Approached the center of the deck, the Commander found his team – a highly specialized group of five, himself included – as well as the ship’s Captain, Val’ Kareem, crowded around a long projection table showing an ochre-tinted hologram of the undulating planetary surface of Wolf 1061c. Taking up his position next to Frakes, the Captain’s grizzled voice grabbed his attention, “Commander, been stargazing again eh? You’ve spent so much time up in the Observation Module lately I’m beginning to think you’re avoiding me.”
“Just trying to get one last view of our vast Galaxy before your driving plows us into a comet or some such, ma’am,” the Commander quipped back with an appropriate amount of humility.
“Hmph, glad to see isolation has no bearing on your disregard in manners towards your dear old Captain,” Kareem replied in jest, “Let’s get this show on the road eh?”
The Commander smiled faintly before signaling Frakes to begin the briefing.
At once the Lieutenant swiped across his datapad, bringing up some geolocational data on the planet to the projection table. After clearing his throat he motioned to the table saying, “LOTUS, what can you tell us about the rock?”
In an instant, a warm feminine voice washed over the entire team, seemingly from everywhere at once, “Of course Lieutenant. Wolf 1061c is a terrestrial planet, one of three in this system that orbits its M-class, red-dwarf host star.” Various infographics and overlays displayed on the holo table as LOTUS spoke, a holographic representation of an audio wave pulsated in accordance with her voice. “Planetary ownership records indicate that the planet was bought out by the Prospera Corporation with the aim of terraforming it for the establishment of an agricultural colony.”
The Prospera Corporation logo projected out from the holo table. It was a bold icon in the shape of an embossed, green pentagram. A silver shaded star sat on its point and extended its legs into the middle of the pentagram. Criss-crossing the star was two workman’s agricultural tools, their handles facing up and outwards, and a phrase written in an obdurate Cyrillic script ran along the bottom line:
И был сделан человеком
“After the company went bankrupt and dissolved over two hundred years ago, the colony was abandoned before completion. There is no recorded flight log data of any transport or supply ships to or from the system since then.”
“Meanin’?” the lively voice of team member O’ Rourke interrupted, however, by the look of him he was still half asleep.
With a personality and mannerisms as volatile as his function, the team’s demolitions and explosive ordnance expert, O’ Rourke, was a witty troublemaker with a flair for the dramatic. His body was covered in burn tissue, most of it self-inflicted from an incident where he brought down an entire six-story rebel stronghold with demo charges, all while he was still inside, earning him the moniker “Scartail” and a plethora of outstanding intergalactic charges linked to war crimes. To this day he is still exiled from a vast cluster of the Inner Worlds. He secured his place on the team some years ago through the recommendation of Frakes after he heard of a red-headed bomber on the verge of excommunication from the Core due to the use of illegal and highly unstable explosive ordnance on the battlefield. Throughout his years as a demolitionist O’ Rourke had blown off more than a few of his fingers, having to replace those missing with metal-plated prosthetics. A few misplaced fingers was common in his line of work, or as he put it himself, ‘true for any so-called explosives expert worth a damn’ and yet despite his physical infirmities it didn’t hinder (or deter) him from mixing delicate explosive compounds and deploying them on the field; that, or his caustic sense of humor.
“Meaning,” answered Juno, the team’s Field Medic, with her arms folded, “those corporate scumbags left their remaining colonists down there to die. Typical,” she said, shaking her head without emotion, “the working Joe always gets the boot.”
Juno was the youngest member of the team and a strong contender for the smartest. Top of her class in the academy she was an expert in medicine and a skilled surgeon. Despite being rather young, she had seen her fair share of war and the injury, death, disease, and famine that often arose as a consequence. As a result, her bedside manner, as well as her temper in general, had become notoriously sharp. She had a dry, no-nonsense personality; this was reflected in her appearance which often saw her in formal officer regalia much like Frakes and the Commander. It was also reflected in her slim face, taut and rarely accustomed to smile, and when in a passion her green, dagger-like eyes could unnerve even the Lieutenant at times. Her brunette bob was elegantly short, wavy, and regularly adorned by her signature military beret in and out of combat; it was olive-coloured with the phrase: “Non Fare Danni” in cursive stitched into its right temple. The other members nicknamed her “Outstanding” Juno, partly because she was one of the best medics the Core had to offer, but mostly due to the fact that she had saved everyone on the team more times than they could remember – a life debt that would never be repaid in full.
“Damn,” a twisted smile stretched out half of O’ Rourke’s burn-covered face before he zoned back out.
At this point in the briefing, a technician approached the holo table and whispered a few words to the Captain, who subsequently sighed and said, “Never a dull moment around here. Look, I’ll make this quick,” she hunched over the holo table and swept back a flow of silvery hair. “I don’t know how long you guys plan on staying down there but the orbital period is roughly eighteen days, meaning sun-side temperatures will vary as the planet gets closer to the star. Planet’s tidally locked and it just so happens that you merry band of misfits are dropping in sunny-side up. It’s nothing we can’t manage for the next five days or so but anything longer than that and we’ll have to wait an additional two weeks to safely pick you up, unless you manage to globetrot to the terminator line. LOTUS will flesh out the details.” She stood up from the table, “I gotta go, some telemetry issues require my full attention. I’ll catch up with LOTUS when I’m finished. Good hunting.” A series of nods and casual salutes followed her departure.
The holo table fell silent for a brief moment before the unnaturally cheerful voice of LOTUS continued, “Scans of the planet show surface temperatures of around three-hundred-fourteen Kelvin or forty-one degrees Celsius on its sun-facing half and as hinted at by the Captain this will increase substantially as the planet moves along its orbit, getting closer to the star.” The holo projection shifted to the orbital motions of Wolf 1061c; temperature overlays hovered above two hemispheres representing the broiling and frozen sides of the planet. “I estimate a five day window before temperatures become too dangerous for extraction. The planet’s dark side measures at minus two-hundred-twenty-six Kelvin or minus forty-seven degrees Celsius. Prolonged surface exposure on either of these extremes would prove fatal; the cold carries the risk of hypothermia and the increasing heat renders your flesh and internals subject to the beginning stages of pyrolysis.” A small animation of a humanoid figure bursting into a spontaneous combustion played on the projection table.
“Charming,” grumbled O’ Rourke, “the Core had better fork out some serious hazard pay for this field trip.”
“The terminator line where both sides meet affords a suitable ambient temperature for safe extraction so in the worst case scenario heading toward it would be most prudent. Although, I don’t expect you’ll have to worry about the problem of temperature extremes for long.”
“So we’re surface-bound? A quick and simple slash and burn job?” a gruff, sombre voice asked.
The question came from the final member of the team, Wicklow, a reconnaissance point-man and former sniper team leader hand-picked by the Commander himself having served alongside him in the past. Cold, calculating, and not one to mince words, whoever finds themself in Wicklow’s crosshairs can be certain that death was only a breath behind. A meticulous marksman and technological genius, Wicklow served the function of overwatch and scouting ahead of the team, often deep into enemy territory, to relay information on enemy tactics and perform sabotage operations before engagement. He was tall and pale, almost ghost white in complexion; the only hint of color being a slight rosy tint to his gaunt cheekbones. Much of Wicklow’s service record, as well as his background, was a mystery with the majority of operations he was involved in being classified or erased from public record.
The Commander, half grinning, answered, “You know we don’t do simple, Wicklow.”
The projected planetary map on the holo table quickly shifted to an x-ray view of the planet’s core, highlighting in deep orange a vast network of subterranean tunnel systems. “The mission destination,” continued LOTUS, “isn’t the surface of Wolf 1061c Ensign Wicklow. It’s beneath it.”
Frakes swiped at his datapad, playing an ominous audio file containing irregularly repeated low-pitched beeps and a scratchy background static, “We picked up an encoded signal originating from deep beneath Wolf 1061c’s surface a few days ago.”
LOTUS supplemented, “Preliminary surface scans show no signs of activity and there’s been no fluctuations in spacetime around the system to indicate any recent visitors.”
“So we’re chasing ghosts?” asked Wicklow in earnest.
Frakes pointed to analysis data on the signal that was brought up on the holo table, “The signal has been modulated and sent on a restricted frequency band reserved only for interstellar crises-”
O’ Rourke, who hadn’t the slightest clue about transmission technology, interrupted, “Cool it with the tech mumbo jumbo okay, what does that even mean?”
“It means this isn’t a random transmission. And it only gets worse from here.” Frakes’ tone indicated that he would not tolerate being interrupted in such a manner again.
O’ Rourke relented and raised his hands towards him in an apologetic gesture.
“As I mentioned previously,” said LOTUS, “the Prospera Corporation invested into terraforming parts of Wolf 1061c for agricultural prospects, then abandoned it over two centuries ago. In addition to utilizing the natural volcanic cave formations, I’ve found records of extensive excavations carried out by the colonists – most likely in an attempt to harness the planet’s latent geothermal energy for their operations and to provide an easier to maintain shelter than on the surface.”
“Did the colonists at least manage to get an atmosphere up and running? The operation will be a much more cumbersome undertaking if we require space suits, especially underground,” remarked Wicklow.
“Scans show an appropriate composition of elements similar to Earth’s in a thin, man-made atmosphere that is surprisingly well preserved and it should block out dangerous levels of solar radiation. However, the gravity is about half as much more than you’re used to. I’d suggest the team be dosed with a steroidal and bone hardening compound for the mission duration and that you consider bringing additional oxygen masks for respiratory aid.”
“Yes, yes, I have already prepared some…” Juno had been focused on the fact that the planet was seemingly empty. “Someone must have sent the signal,” she said to herself, “it didn’t just appear out of nowhere. A distress call maybe?”
LOTUS addressed her, “The colonists left behind should have… expired centuries ago, they simply wouldn’t have had enough resources to survive and certainly no means of long range interstellar communication. Furthermore, the signal doesn’t contain any of the characteristics common of a distress call; In fact, it hasn’t been fully deciphered. We only received part of the complete signal and so far no correlation has been made between the message’s content to any known interstellar language or code.”
Here Wicklow offered a possible explanation, “Could it have been sent by a construct? Maybe around the time of Prospera’s closure by a malfunctioning AI and is only now being picked up – it could explain the junk/partial data.”
LOTUS explained, “While the Prospera Corporation was ultimately shut down due to breaches of interstellar law concerning dubious human testing, there are no records to suggest that they ever conducted extensive research into Artificial Intelligence or Neural Networking. Even back then the use and regulation of constructs was heavily regulated and mostly restricted to military and academic use. The probability that the signal originated from an AI is minimal, not entirely impossible, but there is a much greater concern here.” The projection on the holo table quickly zoomed out from the view of Wolf 1061c, to the surrounding star systems, and kept on going as it followed a seemingly endless red line. “The signal,” continued LOTUS, “has passed beyond any known detection range. Given current limitations of transmission technology, this should not be possible. It’s moving at an incalculable speed; much faster than light speed.”
Scratching at his neck, his metal fingers reflecting the ambient light, O’ Rourke asked, “So? Don’t we do the same when the ship’s moving from system to system?”
“Not exactly,” replied Wicklow, “when the ship goes through the FTL sequence it essentially ‘teleports’ to its destination by manipulating the spacetime around it, the ship itself isn’t moving past light speed.”
“Correct,” LOTUS brought up additional metrics relating to the signal on the holo table, “And what’s more, tracing it back to its source revealed that the signal was received with a negative time interval in the transmission analysis.”
O’ Rourke shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in ignorance.
“It means we received the signal before it could have been sent, Ensign O’ Rourke.” LOTUS’ voice contained a hint of uncertainty which, coming from an AI, was nothing short of unnerving.
“Wait, you mean we’re receiving a message from the future?” inquired a confused Juno.
LOTUS displayed a graphical dissection of the signal’s structure, “The calculations and monitoring equipment seem to indicate this is the case. Naturally, we thought it to be an equipment malfunction at first, but the same signal has been picked up by outposts spanning the entire Galaxy with similar results.”
At this the briefing came to a standstill. The team pondered the situation, each constructing their own hypothesis on how this sequence of events could come to be. The silence was finally broken by Wicklow who quietly said, “Do you know the implications this has if true? It would completely change our fundamental understanding of reality.”
All eyes shifted towards the Commander. Unphased by any speculation he stated confidently, “It’s not important. The Core wants us to go down there and check it out, find out what’s transmitting the signal, and ensure the site is clear so the technicians can retrieve any technology involved. We’ll be utilizing the orbital drop pods for insertion, they’ve been fitted out with reinforced plating so we can puncture through the surface straight into one of the subterranean tunnel systems, saving us from getting fried and a whole lot of digging. Needless to say a Terse-X mandate is in place for this operation, whatever we find down there stays classified.”
Collectively the team nodded in understanding before another brief silence passed, each deep in thought about the details unfolded.
“Ahem!” O’ Rourke coughed before adding with a childish grin, “You think there’s gonna be some aliens down there?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” replied Juno indignantly. “There’s no such thing. We’ve colonized dozens of systems and there’s yet to be any evidence of intelligent life other than humanity. Besides, the chances of us randomly stumbling across an indigenous life form, let alone one that was hostile and possessed the technology to pose any real threat to us, is equivalent to finding a needle in a galactic haystack. You’ve been watching too many of those ancient Earth movies again. The only contender for a ‘creature from outer space‘ around here is you O’ Rourke!”
“Hah!” O’ Rourke laughed with an air of arrogance, “With claws that smite and jaws that bite, I might add!”
“Pfft! With any luck you’ll be the first one to get eaten if there are any aliens, O’ Rourke,” quipped Juno, “although I’m sure not even a cave-dwelling, half-starved, pus-filled blob monster would find you appetizing.”
“Takes one to know one, Juno,” he teased.
Juno reared up with the intent on striking O’ Rourke hard in the shoulder before Frakes swiftly got in between the two.
“Knock it off,” the Commander warned sternly, “we don’t know what to expect down there, could be an unknown hostile group or faction, could be nothing, but we should be prepared for anything. Since we’ll be operating underground, the connection with the ship will be limited and local comms will be short range only, keep this in mind and watch out for each other. The brass has requested the best of the best for this op, that means us, so gear up and get to work. We’ll meet at the drop pod chamber within the hour.”
“Sir!” a cheer from the team concluded the briefing.
©Copyright 2022 Giuseppe Gillespie. All rights reserved.
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