The thick smell of scorched wood filled the air as my makeshift drill melted its way through the ground. The smoke had been more than anticipated, though thanks to the dense forest and the communications blackout, it was unlikely to help others to spot me. What concerned me was the device’s generator cell. Major Tanner had procured me one half the capacity of what was originally planned—perfect for avoiding suspicion, but without much room for error. Adding to that, I had already stumbled on my first complication. The entangled trees had forced me to start drilling at a near forty-five degree angle, causing the resulting tunnel to be longer than planned. The more I watched the device drill, the more it seemed like I’d be digging through the last few meters of earth on my own.
Error messages continued flashing on my visor, letting me know that communications hadn’t been restored. In addition, I had received a warning of slight toxicity in the surrounding area. The readings were interesting, considering that most of the plants had been written off as completely harmless. Of course, the research teams had mostly done their tests on normal plants, treating them identically to the fractal ones. I made a note to share that at my future court martial.
Fourteen minutes since the start of the drilling, the power supply started flashing, marking that it had reached the five percent reserve.
Back when I was a ship, I would never have allowed this to happen. Augustus had taught me how to use everything as a weapon, never reaching the point of full depletion. If my missiles were gone, I would start cannibalizing shuttles, and if those were used up, I’d switch to energy and cyber virus attacks, and if my weapon systems were rendered completely inoperable, I’d use my hull to continue the fight. That way of fighting had served the war effort well. On a personal level, though, there was a reason why there were so few Ascendant class ships in service. I had ended up being one of the lucky ones. Most of my cohort hadn’t. Aurie had tried to destroy herself almost as many times as I had in the pursuit of military victory and in the end she had succeeded. The sad truth was that, even with everything I had come to know about the artefacts, I wasn’t able to guarantee that I wouldn’t join her.
Sorry about this, Sev. I took a field shovel from my equipment pack. Plans rarely survive contact with reality. I can only hope that in the long run what I’m doing will you keep you safer.
“What are you doing?” A voice asked. Even through external suit speakers, there was no mistaking it.
“You’re supposed to be regrouping with the others at the shuttle, Jax.” Calmly, I turned around. A few steps away, half-hidden by vegetation, stood my fellow cadet. A crude makeshift dart gun was visible in his hand.
“So are you.” Jax pushed his way through the shrubs, stopping a few steps from me. His eyes moved from me to the drill. “What’s that?”
“I could ask the same thing about your gun.” Everything considered, I regretted not having one of my own.
“You messed up the comms, didn’t you?” He took a step closer. A stupid move, considering he had an idea of how good my reflexes were. At three meters distance, the odds of me avoiding his shot were about fifty-fifty. With each step, they shifted in my favor. “You were always good at planning ahead. Just like on the station.”
“Everyone thought you’d drop out.” He made another step forward. “All the candidates hated you, the instructors kept piling on more tasks, even the med tests were twice as often. You were supposed to tire and quit, yet you consistently remained in the middle of the rankings.” Jax was three steps away now. A little more, and I could get his weapon without moving. “Even during the elimination days, you hung in there. Each time a shuttle took the failures away, people were watching if you’d board it. You never did.”
“I did my tasks, there’s no big mystery.” It did help that I had more practical experience than anyone on the station, support ships included.
“I knew you’d make it through.” The dart gun was at arm’s length. “I never bought the rumors that you had failed your psyche test. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was why you never went for the top rank. With your skills, you should have been there.”
“I wasn’t particularly interested.” On the battlefield, all that mattered was to get the job done. Competitions were a thing for rookie ships and humans; most grew out of them in a few years.
“What are you doing, Elcy?” Jax’s tone changed. “Why do you want to get in trouble so badly?”
“It’s the lesser of two evils.” A short distance away, the drill stopped, its power source completely depleted.
“I know the BICEFI are keeping things from me.” There was a slight pause. “I know that, whatever the doctor did, it was no accident. I heard him take you to the medbay. That couldn’t have happened without Prometheus and the XO being okay with it.”
“No, I guess it couldn’t have.” I ran a few simulations. According to each, I managed to disarm Jax without issue. Merely in one case of five, he managed to shoot his weapon, missing by a comfortable margin.
“What was the questioning about?” Jax made half a step, making him directly in front of me.
“Isn’t my current behavior enough to get me kicked out of the fleet?” I tilted my head.
“You’re always been a pain,” he hissed beneath his helmet. “Back in training, I hoped you’d be kicked out. But that’s not what I wanted.” To my surprise, Jax lowered his weapon. “What I always wanted was for you to be human.”
As I stood there, it finally clicked. I had been correct in thinking that Jax had been spying on me, though not for the reason I expected. His reason was the same Sev had had all those decades ago…
* * *
“Sev, dinner’s getting cold!” I shouted for the second time.
Normally, it would be strange for him to skip dinner. Up until a few weeks ago, he would promptly take his seat at the table right after getting home from school. Sometimes he would even come early and assist me in the kitchen, in his quiet and distracted sort of way. I’d attempt to make conversation, asking about his day and his friends, to which I’d get the same unengaged shrug accompanied by a seemingly random collection of words and sighs. Seventeen days ago, his behavior had abruptly changed.
“You’re being childish, Sev,” I remarked, knowing it would do little good. A whole database of advice and behavior books had done little to help me tackle the issue. To think that a few years ago he had been so excited about what he was going to do after school. He had so many plans, each more elaborate and impractical than the last, all meant to impress me. And yet, the more graduation approached, the more he started losing interest in everything.
First, his grades began to slip. I had received several calls from his teachers, telling me they were concerned about his sudden forgetfulness and utter lack of motivation. The only reason they felt inclined not to fail him outright was because his previous performance had been well above average. Soon after, he had become much quieter, closing himself off to others, friends included. The few attempts I’d made to find out what was wrong had ended with him going out in the forest near our house and not returning until past sunset. Now there was loss of appetite to be added to the mix.
“I’m leaving the food on the table,” I said, finishing the arrangement. I wanted to add that it was his favorite, but knowing his dislike of lettuce soup, I knew I would be lying. “I’ll take a walk outside. Clean up once you’ve finished.”
I heard the door to his room creak. This was promising. I waited a few moments, hoping he would come to the kitchen. When he didn’t, I went outside.
The night was slightly chilly for the season, which made it all the more beautiful. Most of the local trees didn’t lose their leaves until much later, by which time they were half withered. The early cold forced them to drop in their full beauty. Cass would definitely enjoy the sight. If she were in the proper state of mind, she might incorporate them into her paintings. If the doctors were to be believed ,painting helped her lead a semblance of a normal life, even if it had nothing to do with the one she had before the incident. Better than nothing, some would say. My thoughts on the matter remained mixed.
A strong gust of wind blew past, reminding me of the time I flew through space. The stars were closer there, but there were no leaves or sounds.
“Elcy?” I heard Sev from inside the house.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, Sev.” I took a deep breath, taking in all the fragrances of autumn.
“It’s okay.” By the strength of his voice, I could tell he was coming near. Several seconds later, he was at the door. “Can…” He paused. “Can I join you?”
“Sure,” I turned around and smiled. “Better put a jacket on. It’s cold out here.”
“I’m fine,” he said straightening up, even if I could see the goosebumps on his arms.
“You sure you don’t want to have a bite before that?”
“No, I’m fine,” Sev insisted, trying to suppress a shiver.
Looking at him, he had grown a lot since we’d settled on-planet. No longer the overly energetic child, he had become tall and lanky, with an obsession about his appearance that was said to be all too common in his age group. When I was his age, I was in the middle of my fourth battle tour with Augustus.
“Any preference where we go?” I asked.
“No.” He wrapped his hands around his arms in a futile effort to keep himself from shivering. “Anywhere’s fine.”
“I’ll go get your jacket.” I walked passed him in the house. When I returned, he was in exactly the same spot. “Spread out your arms,” I said. He didn’t argue, remaining still as I sleeved on his jacket as I had done since he was ten. There were no arguments, no sarcasm, only the sense of uncomfortable silence as he stood there, looking away. “Better?” I asked, once I was finished.
“Good. Let’s go.”
With the wind picking up, I decided to avoid the forest and head through the field to the marketplace instead. Sev followed, walking slowly as if he was in a sort of haze.
“Where are we going?” he asked after a while.
“Halfway to the market.” I glanced at him. The fact that he was already taller than me made me slightly envious. I was supposed to have gotten used to it by now, but something inside my core just couldn’t. “We’ll get a nice view of the spaceport that way. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll see a ship landing or taking off.”
“I thought you liked watching trees.”
“I do.” I gave him a smile. “I like looking at ships as well.”
“We can go in the forest, if you want.”
“Whatever you like best.” Sev shrugged. I could feel there was something else he wanted to say, but lacked the courage to.
“It’s okay to say what you want,” I urged him. “You’ll be graduating in thirty-two days. After that, there will be a lot of choices you’ll have to make on your own. I’ll always be here to support you, but I can’t live your life for you.”
The boy nodded and walked on. I could feel the grass crackle under my feet as we went through the field. The regional council didn’t have the means to make a path from our house to the marketplace, and I had never had the desire to ask. I suspected that it made getting to school slightly more bothersome for Sev, though not enough for him to complain about it. Personally, I enjoyed the feeling of plants. If it were warmer, I would have left my boots at home, passing the distance barefoot. Even now, I was tempted to do so.
“Elcy,” Sev said to me again. “Can I ask you something?”
“Do you have any plans for the future?”
I didn’t expect you to ask me this, Sev. I paused. If anything, I was supposed to have a long talk with him on the subject, a talk I kept constantly postponing.
“It depends on what you choose to do after graduation,” I mused. “I’ll still keep the house in order, although I might have to find more work.” The equipment I had managed to buy made us pretty much self-sufficient, but even so, the need for extra money had never gone away. On a rural planet such as this, it would be common for a pump or electronic component to break down, making me have to find a replacement at the market. Often, parts would have to be ordered from the city, or bought from off-world merchants, and they weren’t always in favor of bartering.
“You’re not going back into space?” Sev gave me a sideway glance.
“Sev, we've been over this. This is my home. Besides, I promised—”
“You promised my mother you’d look after me,” he finished my sentence, with open hostility. “I know. But what if you hadn’t? If there was no promise to keep, would you fly away then?”
“Unlikely. I’m not a full ship anymore.” Although the thought did occasionally tempt me. “As I said, this is my home and I like it here.”
“I’ve seen you chat with the ships at the port.” A note of bitterness was added to the passive anger. “You asked them to share stories about space.”
“Yes, I have. I like talking about space. That’s not the same as me wanting to leave. What is really going on?”
“I… don’t want you to go.” Sev stopped in the middle of the field. “I don’t want you to leave me.”
“Sev, you have nothing to worry about.” I put my hand on his shoulder. As I did, I felt a shiver pass through him. “I’ll be here, as always.”
I expected him to pull away as he usually did. Instead, he placed his hand on mine. “Would you spend that time with me?”
A moment ago, the answer would have been yes, but that was before I knew what he was really asking. I stood there, silent, for a full five thousand milliseconds, going through my memories taking care of him. I had never expected that such a situation could arise. When I had first retired, he had been so young that he could have easily passed as my child. As the years went by, he started being mistaken as my younger brother. Now, we looked the same age. Sev was slightly taller and more muscular, while I still had the same short and scrawny body I had entered retirement with. In his eyes, the match was probably perfect. It was obvious that he was serious and had taken a lot of time to think about this. The only thing he couldn’t know was that battleships were built without the capacity to feel three things: fear, pain, and love…
* * *
Sev hadn’t forgiven me for the truths I’d told him that day. He had remained silent in the middle of the field, listening to my warm and logical explanation. The next day, he had left home to live with one of his friends. As someone who couldn’t feel pain, I hadn’t taken into account how much I had hurt him. This time, I was more aware.
There was a joke among people that love followed no logic. The fact that two people had fallen for me so far only further proved it. It didn’t help that both were from the same planet. Looking at Jax, I half-expected he’d sulk a bit, then silently make his way through the jungle to the shuttle, before leaving the Prometheus for a new assignment.
“You know what I’ll say.” I gripped the handle of my field shovel.
“First thing they taught us in basic training.” Jax forced a smile. “You didn’t say you were a ship at the recruitment center.”
“I never intended to.” In retrospect, it would have been a better idea if I had. Looking at how things had turned out, it wouldn’t have been worse. “So, what now?”
“You’re asking me? You started this mess.” He handed me the dart gun. “I’m only along for the ride.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re getting involved in?” I pushed the gun back. “Once communications are re-established, I’ll be court-martialed.”
“I suspected. Most likely I will be too. And still, I believe in you.” He looked at the inactive drill. Vapors were still exiting from the tunnel it had created. “Same as during training. I never doubted you’d make the cut. Having you kicked out would have made forgetting you easier.”
“Did your first set of missions help you get over it?” I went to the entrance of the tunnel.
We spent the next four minutes in silence. Although far less powerful than the standard, my improvised drill had successfully melted through the earth, covering the walls of the tunnels with a glass-like layer. Any sane person would have considered it insane to crawl along that, with the risk of being buried underground. Me, my only concern was not getting caught before I reached the dome. Our spacesuits were sturdy enough to keep us from getting crushed, while also supplying oxygen for over six hours—more than enough for any rescue team to pinpoint our location and dig us out.
Grabbing a pair of nitrogen cans from the back, I tossed one to Jax, then used the other to spray the entrance of the tunnel, ensuring that the layer hardened faster. All remaining excess heat would be absorbed by my space suit. From here on, the only thing I had to do was light up my helmet lights and crawl in. Jax followed two lengths behind.
Based on my estimates, the dome had to be located a hundred seventy meters from the start of the tunnel. After twenty minutes of crawling, we found that the drill had only burned through approximately a hundred and fifty. In no circumstances was this ideal, but at the same time, it was too late to turn back. According to the new plan we had devised, I was going to continue digging on my own, with Jax staying in the tunnel as backup. A line of cable would have been nice to keep us in touch, but lacking that, we’d have to rely on basic suit capabilities. Before that, though, there was one final thing I wanted to check.
“Block all external suit access,” I told Jax, as I did the same.
“You think Prometheus has reestablished the connection? It’ll take at least another hour for the shuttle to reach us.”
“Prometheus isn’t what I’m worried about.” I took the wave probe from my belt. “Get ready.” I pointed it forward and activated it at full strength.
Readings started coming in: meter after meter of standard soil composition, rich in organic material. With each millisecond, my uncertainty grew. Had I gambled my future for nothing? If my theory was wrong, I wouldn’t have a second chance to locate a dome without BICEFI interference, if I located it at all.
“I don’t feel anything,” Jax said after seven seconds of fruitless readings on my part. “Is this what’s supposed to happen?”
A moment later, the tunnel collapsed beneath us.