This is Light Seeker requesting assistance, I transmitted on all military channels. Suffering heavy damage. My captain and command staff have all been incapacitated.
A wave of missile drones struck my port side. I blasted the area with virus transmissions, followed by a missile volley at the nearest enemy ship. Numerous explosions rocked my hull, nearly causing a breach. My subroutines issued a new set of priority commands, sending a swarm of repair bots to restore the affected area, while I focused on the bio-readings of my crew. Most of the people seemed functionally fit, even with their stress readings approaching critical levels. My entire command staff, however, remained unconscious.
This is Light Seeker requesting assistance, I transmitted on all military channels. Suffering heavy damage. My captain and command staff have all—
This is Eternal Sirius. A transmission came in on the high priority channel. Status?
I ran a search through the fleet’s database. The Eternal was listed a Starsweeper class Admiral ship. I had seen five of that type since my deployment, all brought to strengthen the second front. Two generations older than me, they were three times as large and equipped with a set of strategy capable quantum-state cores. According to his file, Eternal Sirius had been retrofitted with current generation weapon systems and fourteen wings of short distance fighters.
I’m trapped in a pincer attack. Three Rodent class Cassandrian ships are attacking my starboard side and one more on my port side. There’s was no point in adding that this was my first major battle and I wasn’t handling it well. I’ve suffered moderate damage, no breaches so far, all major systems are operational. My captain and command staff have been knocked out. Please advise.
How did that happen? Eternal asked. I could tell he wasn’t pleased. Why did you break off from the front?
Captain’s direct orders, I said, transmitting a backup copy of the event. The Cassandrians have launched a new type of missile. The impact caused a pattern of vibrations that knocked out everyone on my bridge. All personnel are stable, but unresponsive.
Seventy-two missiles targeting the command deck appeared on my scanners. The Cassandrians had systematically tested my response capabilities and knew exactly what they needed to ensure a hit. Immediately, I activated my adjustment boosters and did an axis rotation. Seconds later the bottom of my hull trembled with explosions.
They are increasing their attacks, I transmitted, while my subroutines instructed swarms of med and repair bots to my lower levels. This time there were breaches. I need instructions.
Transmit all data on the new weapon! Eternal ordered. And try to return to the fleet if able.
There’s no telling when my captain will be able to issue orders. I had a med bot inject the captain with a new cocktail of nanites, chemicals, and adrenaline. The effort failed to trigger a response. I initiated the data transfer. Bursts of information streamed along military channels informing the rest of the fleet of the thirty-nine minutes I had experienced. What are my instructions?
You’re in control now, came the response. Three ships are heading your way, but it’s all you. Keep your crew alive and stay in one piece until your captain wakes up.
Three missiles passed through my defenses, striking my hull. The damage was negligible, but I had no bots to allocate to the area.
Stay in one piece, I thought as I activated all auxiliary thrusters, moving back towards the fleet’s front. Three of the Cassandrian ships matched my vector.
For a single millisecond, reality paused. Since my creation, I had undergone vigorous virtual training, including millions of mock battles and simulations. Nothing had prepared me for the experience of a real battle or the possibility of engaging in solo command with people on board.
Taking evasive action, I transmitted. Returning to fleet. For the sake of my captain and crew, I hoped I’d make it there in one piece.
“Marker three appears stable,” I said, pressing against the cave floor with my glove. “The crystal structure looks similar to that on top. Am I to do a mineral analysis?”
“That’s a negative, Elcy,” Major Tanner said through the comm. “We’ll be sending you the secondary drill. You are to assemble it and await instructions.”
“Aye, Major.” Whoever was issuing the orders was remarkably consistent. Since the assembly of the communications array, the only device cleared for use was the laser drill. All the measuring, sampling, and excavation equipment brought from Prometheus remained boxed in containers by the landing pods. No tools, no light sources, even communication was done through a shielded cable plugged in the back of my spacesuit. The technology methods we used were so arcane they almost made me feel modern.
I turned around and set my suit-lights to maximum. The rays bounced off the crystal clusters throughout the underground chamber. Normally I’d call them beautiful, if they weren’t so hazardous. Unlike the quartz on the surface, these were smaller and sharp enough to slice through my suit if I wasn’t careful. Yet, all my requests to chip a safe path through them had been denied.
I’ll break the shards when I move the equipment, you know, I told Prometheus. Back when I was a ship, I hated when people got passive-aggressive on me. From what I had seen, however, it tended to work more often than not when used on humans.
Only if you’re cleared by the major, the science ship responded after a ninety millisecond delay. Apparently, he could be just as annoying.
In that case, the major had better be prepared to put the containers there himself. From what I’ve seen, they could be quite unforgiving on the field. Prometheus was fifty years too young to match my sarcasm.
A loud click indicated that the communication link had been severed. So much for friendly banter. The annoying part was that I couldn’t tell if it was Prometheus who had put an end to our talk or someone else.
The drill shaft was on the opposite end of the chamber, over seven hundred meters from the surface. Provided a proper path, I would be able to reach it in less than a minute. Given standing orders, it took me five. A pair of alloy freight cables dangled in the space along with my communication cable, lit by the dim light of projectors above.
“Ready to receive the package, Major,” I said, grabbing hold of the freight cable so as not to entangle my communication line.
“What’s it like down there?” I heard Ally ask. “Did you see anything unusual?”
“Nothing but sharp crystal formations, ma’am.” I guess it depends on the definition of unusual. “No artifacts. I took some pictures for analysis.” In truth, I doubted they had any scientific significance, but they were nice to look at. After the mission was over, I was going to put in a request to keep the pictures for personal use.
“Stay on mission, Elcy,” the major interrupted, draining every last droplet of fun like a sandstorm in the desert. “Once you get the parts, you’re to assemble the drill on marker three.”
“You already mentioned, sir.” The first of the containers made its way down. I waited for it to reach me, then unhooked it from the carabiner and put it on the chamber floor behind me. The sound of crushing glass filled my ears. “Could I know the angle of drilling, or is that something I’ll be informed of later?”
“Don’t be a smart ass!” The outburst of anger reassured me. “Set it to zero angle vertical, same as the primary shaft.”
“Will do, Major.” I unhooked the second equipment crate. “Talk to you once I’m ready.”
Cass used to say that illogical orders were like four-dimensional space: they didn’t make immediate sense, contained only part of the big picture, and were highly theoretical. If she were here now, she’d probably ignore most of the safety protocols and tell me to “relax a bit.” I didn’t have the capacity to imagine being Prometheus’ captain, but had no doubt it would be a unique experience.
Piece of cake. I fetched the last crate. Just like building a treehouse.
“Prometheus, can you give me placement parameters?” I asked, as I began assembling the first of the tripod legs. Seconds later, the data appeared on my helmet’s visor. “Thanks. Do you think the surface will hold?” I missed my old processing power. If only I had a few more cores, I’d be able to perform a proper simulation.
“As long as you maintain five second blasts, you should be fine,” the science ship decided to respond. I noted that he had chosen to use “should.”
“This isn’t open space. Do you think the coolant will be enough?” I adjusted the drill support frame, placing the legs according to Prometheus’ specifications.
“After the first three meters, temperature won’t be a factor.”
“It’s the first meter I’m worried about.” I snapped the laser drill into place. From what I could tell, the design was similar to a standard anti-missile laser. I myself had a battery of those at one point, before fleet command admitted what an energy hog the system was. Afterwards, I had been refitted with a more universal, if slightly inferior, drone-based defense system.
“Your suit should handle the initial heat wave, and I’ll be monitoring your readings in case of emergency. Not that I expect anything to happen.”
“I know.” I attached the power unit cable to the drill. “You’re only worried about the suit.” It was like talking to Sev. He and Prometheus had the same habit of hiding their emotions behind sloppy excuses. Come to think of it, they were approximately the same age as well. “I should introduce you to my ward sometime. The two of you have a lot in common.”
Prometheus didn’t answer. I knew he was going through all military databases collecting information on Sev. In his place, I would have done the same.
“Drill is fully assembled, Major,” I said, then ran its self-diagnostic. “Everything is green. What are my instructions?”
“Set the drilling sequence as follows.” The major was talking, but I could tell the instructions were coming from someone else. “Initial drilling time five seconds, one second increase every two iterations. Pause period—twice the drilling time until drilling time reaches ten seconds, then a steady decrease one second per iteration.”
“Quite the tango, sir.” I set the parameters. “Anything else?”
“Try not to break anything.”
“I always do, sir.” I put in a five second delay, then stepped back. “Here goes.”
There were many fascinating things in the universe. Until today, I didn’t suspect that watching a high-powered laser melt quartz in an underground chamber was one of them. A wave of heat hit me as the bright red of the laser mixed with the pale amber of the crystals. One by one, each individual shard began to glow, like leaves set on fire by a lightning strike.
There’s no logic to this. And yet it was beautiful. Five seconds later, the drill stopped, plunging the chamber in darkness once more.
You saw that, right? I asked Prometheus.
All seen and recorded, the ship said. You might want to stand a bit back.
The drilling continued. For the next minute, the crystal structures would light up during each drill cycle, increasing the ambient temperature by an average of seven degrees. By the third minute, the warnings on my visor’s display became annoying enough to make me retreat halfway towards the entrance shaft.
“Initial sequence complete. It’s all non-stop drilling from here on,” I said, moving further back. “A ventilation shaft would have been useful.”
“Is the drill alright?” the Major asked with a note of concern.
“I was more concerned with myself, sir, but yes, the drill is safe and functioning at full capacity.” The chamber glow was now replaced by a column of light emerging from the drill hole. “The secondary shaft is underway.”
“Keep monitoring. When the power units are exhausted, proceed to marker four.”
“Roger.” I pulled up the map on my display. Marker four put me right next to the cobalt deposit. If Ally’s theory was correct, and it turned out to be a structure of some sort, I’d likely be asked to proceed inside. The chances of that were minuscule, but it would be a lie to say the thought didn’t intrigue me. Finding an artifact and establishing third contact was already a lot, but I found myself hoping for more.
There was a time, before first contact, when humanity was obsessed with the prospect of finding alien life in space. Thousands of research ships would be sent in every direction with the explicit goal of achieving just that. At the time, they were a sliver of the overall fleet, but they proceeded with their mission nonetheless, fully aware they were chasing the impossible. Then, one day, one of them succeeded, and the entire matter was classified. As a result, the Scuu-Human war began, continuing unstopped to this very day. At present, the war was essentially a large scale border conflict. Both sides remained in their spheres of influence, piling up forces on both sides. From what I knew, the last major incursion had taken place twenty-four years before I retired, as humanity tried to wedge a fleet in Scuu space. There was no official statement as to the outcome of the attempt, but I suspected it had ended in failure—major successes tended to flood the media channels.
“Better keep an eye on drill, Cadet,” Prometheus said in my comm. “Drilling is nearing the deposit.”
“Roger that, Prometheus.” I checked the chamber heat readings. The air had cooled enough for me to get closer to the drill again. “Do you want me to cut the power?”
“Definitely not!” the science ship snapped. “You’re only to observe until power is completely depleted. Is that clear?”
“Clear as crystal.” Just as clear that there was someone else listening in. It was an old ship’s trick to use audio communication in order to get a conversation on record. “Heading towards drill now.” I started making my way through the shards. “Switching to high definition video feed. Let me know if—”
The light coming from the drill shaft flickered. It lasted only a fraction of a second, but was enough to tell me what to expect. I had seen such behavior many times when I was a ship, and each time it meant the same thing: explosions.
I reacted immediately, crouching down and holding my helmet with both hands so as to completely to cover the visor. The blast wave didn’t delay, filling the chamber like a cannon shot. I could hear the drill head shatter to bits. Warnings covered my display, as the equivalent of a wall of fire passed over me. Moments later, the suit’s system shut down.
“Prometheus, my suit sys has gone,” I said, keeping still. I could hear shard fragments rain upon me. “No breaches so far. Is everyone alright up there?”
No answer. I waited for a few seconds, then moved my arms off my helmet. Everything was pitch black. The column of light had disappeared, along with the laser drill and the rest of the chamber. For a moment, it almost felt like I was in space.
This is my element. I switched on the auxiliary light system in my right glove. Five pencil thick lights shone from my fingertips. Slowly, I stood up.
“Elcy, respond!” The major’s voice echoed in my helmet along with an earful of static.
“Glad to hear you, Major.” I pointed my finger-lights at the drill spot. All that remained was part of the support frame, twisted almost beyond recognition.
“We’ve lost direct communication to the planet. Respond!”
“I read you, Major.” He must have switched to the auxiliary communication array. At least it was good to know that worked.
“Thank the stars! What happened down there? What’s your status?”
“I seem to—”
“Yes, I read you, Elcy!” he interrupted. “What’s your status!”
“There seems to be a significant lag delay. Over.” I said and waited. This was the first time I resorted to using radio procedure words. I doubt there there was anyone alive who even knew about them.
“This is Prometheus. Lag delay is three-point-seven seconds. Go on with your status. Over.”
You figured it out. I knew you were a bright kid.
“Prometheus, the drill’s completely smashed. I’m fine, but have lost all systems. Are the exos still functional? Over.” I looked over my shoulder. There were over two hundred meters to the surface shaft.
“Exos are functional, but impractical with such lag. Any idea what caused the disruption? Over?”
Guess I’m on my own for the time being.
“There was an explosion in the secondary shaft.” Carefully, I moved forward. “It destroyed the drill and fried most of the electronics.” I guess that explained why I wasn’t allowed to use more devices than absolutely required. Whoever was in charge of the mission was well prepared. “What are your instructions? Over.”
Reaching the edge of the shaft, I looked down. My finger lights didn’t have the power to reach the bottom. From what I could estimate it was a three hundred meter drop at least.
“Continue with the mission,” a new voice said, warped to such an extent I couldn’t tell if it were male or female. “Are you able to go to marker four in your present state unassisted?” I waited for several seconds. Obviously even BICEFI didn’t respect ancient radio procedures.
“I might have a few ideas.” It was going to be tricky, but far from impossible. “Is that what you want me to do? Over.”
I stood there waiting—probably the longest four seconds in my life after retirement. Finally an answer arrived.