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The exploration ship U.E.S. Beagle limped through the sub-ether like an eagle with half of its flight feathers clipped. The starship's twenty remaining crewmembers had long since gotten used to the creaks and groans as the inertial damping systems strained to compensate, and the vibrations from a drive system not nearly in its best operational shape. But five years in unknown space brought with it certain risks. They had all known what they were getting into.
Hannah Cotham watched the growing field of yellow and red warning lights with increasing alarm. First contact with the last world they had visited had been a catastrophe. After the captain had refused to meet the aliens' demands, they had opened fire. The Beagle had barely escaped into the sub-ether with a horrendous amount of damage. Far worse had been the casualties among the crew. The captain, dead, as well as most of the engineering staff. Cotham was the only real engineer left, and the human body could only go for so long without sleep. Four weeks in the sub-ether, limping along at a third of cruising speed with half her impeller blades broken. And all the time the Beagle threatened to fly apart.
Cotham considered what to do only for a few seconds. I suppose I should at least try to tell Commander Berman... She made a face at the distasteful thought. The two remaining command staff--The Commander and one junior officer--had been so shaken by their last encounter that they were unreliable at best. The rest of the crew were in little better condition.
A half dozen more condition indicators went from yellow to red. Eighteen months to the Outer Colonies at this speed, let alone Earth. We won't make it even another few hours. Cotham hurried down the damaged corridor towards the makeshift bridge. The one thing she hadn't had time to fix was the internal comm system. It was a long walk through ruined corridors of a ship that normally held a crew of 200.
Most of the jury-rigs around were her work. Earth Stellar Navy exploration vessels were built with a huge amount of redundancy and the strongest structural materials available, just because of the situations they would encounter years away from resupply and spacedock repairs. But they had long lost most of their stores, and Cotham was the only qualified crew member left to fix things, even with the extensive cross-training most of the crew received.
As she made the way along the corridor, she sighed when she noticed Ensign North waiting for her. "How's it going, Bruce?" he asked sardonically.
"Will you stop calling me that?" Cotham replied heatedly. "It's been a long time since the Angmar..."
"I still can't believe you did this by choice."
A couple years before, they had run into a ship full of aliens obsessed with balance. The only way they had allowed the Beagle to leave unharmed was by correcting the gender balance among the crew. Cotham had volunteered. The only one to do so. The rest--a grand total of sixteen--had been chosen at random by the computer. "Life's too short, North. I wanted the experience. Besides, you're one of the few who've ever had a problem with it. Everyone else was happy someone volunteered." She sighed. "Look, I don't have time for this. I need to talk to the Commander..."
"Captain," North corrected.
"Commander," Cotham said, firmly. "Get out of my way." She shoved him aside, heading for the old crew mess hall that served as the bridge.
Most of the outer hull of the Beagle had been holed by the aliens' particle beams, leaving only the spaces inside the inner hull as habitable. Cotham knew that the only reason they had escaped was that the hostile aliens lacked the secret of the sub-ether drive. Captain Reinhardt had refused to hand that technology over, and had been killed on the surface. The mess hall was at the core of the ship, and had mostly escaped damage. The remaining crew slept and lived there, with their stores stacked in the corner.
Cotham still looked at the ship with some pride. Even a battleship couldn't have withstood the punishment the Beagle had and still have any surviving crew. But the only reason they had any sub-ether impellers left was that the hostile aliens had wanted the technology. Even then, the effects of the firefight had left them only barely operational.
Commander Berman sat listlessly at the console, barely paying attention to the indicators. From where she was, Cotham could see many of the glowing red lights on his screen that mirrored what she had seen in Engineering. A cracked glass of red wine sat next to the console. I've been giving him reports how many times a day? Six? Seven? We're going to be dead in two hours... Cotham got a hold of herself, adjusting her dirty, ill-fitting blue jumpsuit. "Commander..."
"Captain," Berman replied listlessly. The man just didn't seem to care any more. The surviving crew couldn't stand to be around him, leaving their bunks as soon as they awoke, or finding other places to sleep. While one or two--including North, she gave him that much--had skills enough to make simple repairs, they dispersed through the habitable volume of the ship even during "duty" hours. The Commander, like everybody else, had not showered since the battle. He had a full beard, and looked at Cotham with a indolent expression. "Are you going to report, or just stand there looking cute, Engineer?"
"Captain," Cotham began, trying not to make the word an insult. Captain Reinhardt had reprimanded Berman many times for his conduct for several years, but had refused to demote him. "I told you yesterday that I got some of the external sensors working. There's a planetary shadow with strong life-echoes along our route. We need to land there."
The Commander's expression hardened. "I promised the crew we're going home. And that's what we're doing. We have the stores..."
The female engineer combed her tangled light brown hair back from a grime-covered cheek. This time it was impossible not to let her emotions come through. "Captain, we won't make it! There's microfractures developing in the impellers! We're all going to die if we don't land there!"
The Commander stood up and put what he thought was a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Now Hannah, really. You're only a very junior engineer. Are you sure you're not just overreacting? Reading the telltales wrong?"
This 'junior engineer' saved your ass, Commander, she thought to herself, for once angry at being called by the first name she had chosen. "No sir. I'm not."
Too her shock, Berman sat back down at the helm and shrugged. "Whatever. I doubt it's as serious as you think, but I don't particularly care what you do about it. Dismissed."
Aghast, Cotham stumbled out of the mess hall, only to literally run into North again. And she got another surprise. "Look..." he began. "I'm sorry. I've been an ass."
Cotham self-consciously folded her arms. "And what brought that on? And how do I know you're being sincere?"
"You know me better than that... uh... Hannah. We were friends for how long before... uh..." He stammered.
She could tell that North was having difficulty. But the gunnery officer had never expressed himself very well. Still, she frowned. "I'm guessing you overheard what happened in there. You're trying to apologize because we're all going to die. Get out of my way. I'm going to go save your sorry ass."
Engineering was a spaghetti mass of twisted cables and conduit. The four main reactors were more or less within normal parameters. It was the four six-bladed impellers they powered that were the problem. Spun up to many thousands of revolutions per minute, they allowed the ship to enter the sub-ether. Velocities of several thousand times the speed of light were theoretically possible, though Earth ships could only manage a hundred times at maximum. Beagle limped home at barely twenty. If the impeller blades broke while in the sub-ether...
No ship had ever survived an uncontrolled re-entry into normal space.
Long having made her decision, Cotham started to make preparations for a manual re-entry. While going though the checklist, North entered Engineering. She glared at him, but only for a moment. "You're only apologetic because I'm saving your skin," she snapped.
"I know, I know. But I really am sorry, Hannah. I'm such a toady, sometimes. But look what we've been through!" the blond man said plaintively. "Look, I want to help. That's why I'm here. I'm not completely useless in Engineering."
Hannah looked at her lengthy checklist, and tried to put her bitterness aside. "Well, this does have a greater chance of success if we both work on it. I was going to have to cut corners, otherwise." The engineer looked at the sensor display. "We'll be in sublight range in an hour. Take that clipboard."
North saluted. "Yes, ma'am."
"One of these days someone is going to invent a sub-ether transmitter that doesn't have to fill a whole lunar crater," North complained, pushing the last few buttons. The aliens had destroyed all of the sub-ether message torpedoes they would have otherwise used, along with the half dozen spare impeller blades the ship carried. Ensign North looked very stressed. "We're going to have to make a belly landing, aren't we?"
"We're damned lucky our gravitic systems still work," Cotham said, making the final preparations. "And we better hope they keep working." Otherwise the 200-meter long starship wouldn't have a chance. She checked the sensor display. "In range in two minutes. Sublight drives are nominal. Barely." Her finger hovered over the kill switch. If a few more of the indicators went red... The sensor screen indicated they were in range. "Well, here goes nothing. Shutting down impellers."
The Beagle shuddered as she exited the sub-ether back into normal space. The re-entry seemed very smooth, Cotham thought. Almost anticlimactic. But just to be safe, she pushed another button. All the impeller indicators went from red, to the gray of inactivity, while a telltale at the corner of the screen said: Impeller ejection complete.
"What did you do that for?" North said heatedly. "We need those!"
"If you think there's a chance in hell that they'd ever work again, you're crazy, North. The retraction systems are completely gone and we can't make planetfall with them extended." She'd already had to jettison half of the blades before entering the sub-ether during the battle, just for the sake of balance. Cotham looked on the sensor screen. A pale blue dot was visible, just a few light-minutes away. "Reactors switched over to sublight drive. Plasma streams looking good..."
"What the fuck do you think you're doing, Cotham!" Commander Berman stormed into Engineering, walking unsteadily enough that the engineer wondered just how he'd navigated the corridor without hurting himself. "I told you... ordered you that we're going home!"
"You told me to do whatever I needed to, sir," Cotham replied formally. "So I did what was necessary to preserve the life of this crew."
"I never..." Berman began.
"I'm afraid you did, Commander," North interrupted.
Stunned, Berman looked at the two junior officers, sober enough to realize he was outgunned. "We could have made it home!"
"With all due respect," Cotham replied, her voice full of venom. "Only in tiny pieces. Sir."
The world they were approaching was now a visible disc on the sensor screen. Resolution was horrible, since the few remaining sensors hadn't been intended for the role that the engineer had put them in. North leaned close to the readouts and tapped on the screen. "Hmm..."
"What is it?" Commander Berman asked, begrudgingly.
"Thought I saw an energy spike. There's a chance this planet is inhabited. If it is, they've probably detected us by now," North informed.
Berman glared at the engineer.
Cotham shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, we've traded certain death for a fighting chance to live. Let's make the best of it. We'll know more once we get closer."
Gathering the crew took some time. There were dozens of nooks and crannies where they could hide, but now that they were all in one place for the first time in weeks, Cotham felt her heart sink. To a man and woman, they were each completely defeated. Under Berman's non-leadership, they had retreated into themselves. They were a passive, dejected bunch, unfit for any sort of duty. And it wasn't entirely Berman's fault.
I should have seen this coming, the engineer thought. I could've done something about it... Berman was even allowing her to give the orders. "We'll be landing in less than two hours," she announced. "Make what preparations you can. It's going to be rough. There's some irregularities in the forward gravitics that will make maneuvering difficult, it not impossible. We will be making a controlled crash. Dismissed."
As she watched the twenty reluctantly go to their stations, Cotham sighed. A skeleton crew was sixty. And her own efforts to keep the ship from falling further apart the past few weeks had felt futile. Anything could happen.
The closer they got to the planet, the more North watched the sensors. He had received more planetary science training than engineering. "Lieutenant, have a look at this," he said. "Some definite energy activity on the surface, but I can't see anything like cities. It's pretty much spread all over. No radio emissions. I wish I had more sub-ether sensors..."
"Is the air breathable, at least?" She leaned forward to look at the screen. Tiny flares flickered on the surface, like so many Christmas lights.
"No question of that! You picked a good one, Hannah."
North had been patronizing her for hours, using her first name as often as possible as if to make up for the past two years. She ignored it for now, but she'd have to do something about it once they were on the ground. If they were still alive.
With the helm nearly fifty meters away from Engineering, and no internal communication, the crewmembers formed a chain so Cotham could make what adjustments she could as they decelerated into the atmosphere. But in her estimation, they would still enter too hot. With the shields gone, and the armored outer hull sliced through like so much soft cheese, the Beagle's flattened cylindrical shape wasn't nearly as aerodynamic as normal. The ship herself was built for planetfall. Even crash landings. But not with half of her hull plating either shredded or missing.
The Beagle seemed to groan in pain as the ship entered the atmosphere. What was left of the forward hull peeled away under the hypersonic buffeting. "We're coming in too fast!" North shouted over the noise.
"Can't be helped! The inner hull will hold!" Cotham replied, furiously pushing buttons to help Berman keep the ship under control. The forward gravitics were very sluggish, and in their damaged state they couldn't completely cancel the force of gravity. The magnetic reverse-thrust buckets could only take ten percent of the full engine thrust, and they were starting to fail. The control panel was once again a growing tree of flashing warning lights.
A klaxon blared for a moment, only to be cancelled by one of the other crewmen. "Shouldn't we eject the reactors?" crewman Burns shouted.
"The reactor vessels are built to handle a meteoric impact! We're not even over mach ten!" And slowing down... But we're flying nearly blind... Forward, Berman had to depend on the visual sensors now, trying to keep the bucking, rolling starship under control. At least the extra drag from the damage was actually helping slow them down. At the same time, Cotham watched the indicators for the forward power feeds with great concern. There were intermittent breaks in the forward control lines. It was like trying to control a blue whale with a hat pin.
North had found a wide plain, expecting a long slide out. But as Beagle broke out of the clouds at ten thousand feet at just over mach two, the forward gravitics failed, dragging down the bow nearly vertical. But Cotham had expected this. Everybody was strapped down, and she was secured to the console.
Now the rear gravitics showed the strain. The ship rattled and shuddered even more as it dropped like a rock towards the waving purple grass. More warnings lit up. At a thousand feet the rear gravitics failed. All Cotham had left were the internal inertial dampers, into which the engineer fed all the power available. Having done all she could, Cotham hugged the console.
The wreck of the Beagle wasn't recognizable as a starship. She had hit the ground bow-first, still going several hundred miles per hour. Her momentum had made the ship cartwheel dozens of times. The only thing that had saved the lives of the crew was the ship's ability to take punishment. Secure inside a bubble that mostly cancelled the force of inertia, Hannah escaped with only a broken arm.
Six others were not so fortunate.
Raging brushfires surrounded the ship. Of the fourteen survivors, ten were miraculously uninjured. It fell to them to use torches to cut their way out of the wreck. Hannah did what she could to comfort the others and gather medical and food supplies. A number of long-term survival kits had survived the crash. The ship wouldn't be suitable as shelter. All sorts of toxic materials were used in its construction. It just wasn't safe to stay.
"We don't have a lot of batteries, Lieutenant. We need to save the medical equipment for the more seriously injured," yeoman Burns informed. The enlisted woman was short and slight, even as spacers went, with her red hair bobbed into a regulation cut that had grown out since the battle. The crash appeared to have revitalized many of the crew. Burns had the most medical training and was checking the pressure splint on Cotham's left arm. "Herrera has a puncture wound, and that's going to take most of our antibiotics. Anders has internal bleeding and I doubt he'll survive the night..."
"Can't you do any emergency surgery?" Cotham asked as Burns injected a painkiller.
"I'm not trained without an autodoc. Unless you can repair the one we have, ma'am."
Fatigue, pain, and worry were giving Hannah a pounding headache. They were two miles from the Beagle's smoking wreckage, and still not really out of danger. They still had three miles to walk before she considered them a safe distance from the ship. The engineer looked down at the former starship from the ridge where they had paused to rest. The four, paired reactor vessels were clearly visible on the port and starboard sides, as well as the plasma drives they fed into at the very stern. The cartwheeling had torn off the two sponsons where the paired sets of contra-rotating impellers had once been. The Beagle had been a sleek, though not very maneuverable, starship. All that redundancy came at a cost. If they'd just been a little faster...
"What a sorry way for a brand new starship to come to an end," the yeoman said. "But you did a damned good job at saving our lives, ma'am." She carefully checked the splint again. "So, where do you think we are?"
"The Navigator just pointed us towards Earth Space and engaged the drive before he died," Hannah replied, remembering the mangled crewman she had recovered from the Bridge. "I really have no idea beyond maybe sixty light years or so."
"Can we salvage anything else from the ship?"
Hannah's body screamed for sleep, every pore ached. But no, not yet. "Later, maybe. Let's keep moving."
Commander Berman took point, with the wounded in the middle. However, everybody was deferring to her for leadership. Berman had given some perfunctory orders about "survival protocols" and had said little else beyond grunts of acknowledgment. Morale oddly seemed better, but the adrenalin rush that had come with the crash would not last much longer. Cotham knew she had to do something to keep the survivors together.
Gannett stood in front of the holographic image of a standard Nanolathe Drone, tracing over the lines of control circuitry in their glowing blue hue with a short claw. Stiff tail swaying thoughtfully, he examined the reconstruction with a critical eye. After many weeks of coaxing malfunctioning and mostly inoperable machinery, one had finally sent him back some diagnostic data. Now he could begin his real job.
"Why in the Frozen Hells did these buggers just... stop?" he growled. The drones were a confluence of temperamental, bleeding edge technologies that were intended to speed up the terraforming process. His was not the only sector having problems. If it wasn't the gravitics, it was the nanolathes themselves.
The native vegetation wasn't chemically compatible with saurid biology. The first generation of nanotechnology had been seeded on the new world to change that. In fact, by the time the hollowed-asteroid colony ship arrived the ecology was supposed to be indistinguishable from their homeworld. A process that needed at least a century to complete, if all went well.
The first event that changed that was the discovery of gravity control during the voyage. The new gravitic drive had been retrofitted to the generational asteroid-ship and sped up their passage, so they were now fifty years ahead of schedule. Since nobody wanted to wait, they had combined that technology with the latest generation of nanomachines and directed-energy delivery systems. The result was a red floating egg with a sensor slot around the middle, a helix-shaped nanolathe barrel in front, and a small counterweight opposite.
To top it all off, the primitive artificial intelligence that controlled the things was downright stupid. Gannett wanted to disembowel the saurids who had designed the cursed thing. His claws twitched at the thought.
Gannett heard a telltale claw-click as his assistant came down the corridor. Rae seemed exhausted, her gray feather crest flat against her head. She was running. "Sir!" she trilled. "Have you looked at that batch of data I just sent you?"
"I was going to look at it in an hour, Rae," he replied, taken aback by the excitement that came through her exhaustion. Both had been going on very little sleep for days. There was no telling when the drones would finally send back data, so they had remained awake to catch it. Being several light-hours from the new world made the waiting worse.
Rae's head-crest rose. "Didn't I mark it urgent?"
"I honestly haven't even looked," Gannett admitted, not looking away from the hologram.
The female's long tail rose in anticipation. "Well, I don't want to spoil it. Have a look for yourself. Especially the spectrographic analysis."
"Is this about that meteor last week?"
She went over to the holographic display controls and called up the imagery, which replaced the floating drone. After the impact, there had been cloud cover over the site and limited satellite surveillance. While the fires were some cause for concern, once repaired the drones would fix whatever damage had been done to the local ecology. But now the skies were clear, revealing the largest purple grass prairie on the planet. There were only a few spots of green in thousands of square klicks to show where the drones had done their work properly. But there was still a lot of work to do, and the local vegetation was better adapted to its own world.
Gannett expected to find a normal impact crater. Instead, he just stared at a trail of destruction unlike anything he had ever seen. He zoomed in the satellite image as far as it would go, and squinted at the pixilated results. "What is that? One of our landing ships? We're not missing any, are we?"
Rae was practically hopping up and down. "It's almost the right size and shape. But look at the hull materials. That's nothing like what we build. It was slowing down before it entered the atmosphere. I even traced back the trajectory. It came out of literally nowhere!"
The terraforming specialist raised a cautionary hand. "Let's not jump to conclusions here."
But she couldn't hide her excitement any longer. "Aliens! They crash landed somehow, but they're real aliens!"
In five hundred years of spaceflight, the saurids had never encountered anything intelligent. Since space travel was limited by the speed of light, they knew it would take a very long time to meet anybody else. If they were out there. "Nobody could possibly have survived that crash. That ship is hardly big enough for interstellar travel. If anything it's a dead hulk." A hulk that just happened to hit the only habitable planet in light-years, Gannett added to himself.
"Even so, we need to get a Shepherd Drone over there to investigate."
Gannett looked down his short muzzle at his assistant. "That I can do. At least, if I can pry one away from Sacram. But first we need to tell him what we've found. This is going to cause a stir..."
As the Regional Supervisor, Sacram was even more overworked as his two underlings. The tips of his head-crest feathers were the bright red of higher authority. At first he was skeptical, and nearly dismissed the two outright. But when Gannett called up the satellite imagery, the yellow-eyed saurid stared at it intently. He looked Gannett right in the eye. "You're certain about this? Absolutely certain?"
"I double checked before we came in, sir," the younger saurid explained, lowering his head. "Everything points to an alien ship. It's not one of ours. Even if there's nobody left alive, we still need to send someone down there."
Sacram bared his teeth in irritation. "We're at a critical phase in the ecological transitioning. Going down to the surface would cause complications. You say you're not absolutely certain?"
"Well, I doubt there were any survivors, sir. But it is an alien ship!"
The Supervisor tapped a claw on his desk. "If so, then we're fortunate that it landed in your sector, Gannett. Anywhere else and the idiot Drones would've broken it down for conversion matter before we even knew it was there." Sacram growled. "Take satellite time, the Shepherd, and whatever else you need. Get all the confirmation you can. I want incontrovertible evidence before I knock this up the command chain."
The first shot went wide and sizzled past the invader. Squinting in the harsh sunlight, Berman held his gauss pistol as steady as he could in quaking hands. "This is just fucking great," he muttered to himself. "What the hell is that thing?" It was a dark green ovoid almost three meters long with several manipulator arms along its sides. It was moving slowly, having come from the direction of the wreck, apparently following the trail survivors had left. "Another fucking alien of the week..." he growled.
A second shot hit a glancing blow, impacting one of the manipulator arms. The third hit one of its many sensor-eyes, and apparently caused some damage. The purple grass beneath it flattened as it came to a stop a hundred meters away, hovering two meters above the ground. Berman had to admit that it didn't look particularly threatening. More utilitarian than military. But either the aliens were very small or this was some sort of remote drone.
Berman was taking no chances. Before taking his last shot he scratched a growing rash on his left arm, then forced himself to steady his hands. Cotham's going to skin me for this. But who the fuck cares?
The drone exploded rather beautifully, he thought.
Gannett stared at the last of the incredible images the Shepherd Drone had transmitted before apparently exploding. It was... it had... It had no tail. It had smooth pinkish skin instead of scales, hair instead of feathers atop its head, and stood completely upright. Its face was flat with a small projecting nose. It wore what was undeniably a uniform of some kind.
Its facial expressions were unreadable. Was it being hostile? Or did it think that the Shepherd was a threat? Gannett considered both possibilities equally valid. But who knew what those people had been through to reach the planet. They were bound to be paranoid.
Hours earlier, the Shepherd had explored the wreck of the ship. It would take weeks to really comb over the data. From the scuttlebugs sent inside to explore it, Gannett was left with the impression of a people at the same time more advanced than his own species, but in other ways less so. There was no sign of nanotechnology of any kind. Yet they had somehow traversed who knew how many light years in that tiny ship, with no sign of cryosleep facilities.
There were already shipwrights, metallurgists, xenobiologists, and other specialists hard at work sifting through the data. They sat at their stations, at times talking animatedly to each other, making little trills of excitement, or simply staring.
Kurin, one of the xenobiologists, trilled concern. "Technician, I need to see you. It's urgent." The female's head bobbed.
Gannett looked up from his screen, with the enhanced image of the alien and satellite pictures of their camp site. The small cluster of three plastic domes was laid out defensively, with a half-completed stockade around them. "Yes?"
The blue-crested female walked over and pointed at the rash visible on the alien's arm. Her body scales were an interesting rosette pattern that was obviously a custom job, unlike Gannett's natural yellow-black stripes. "See this? He or she has been infected with planetary nanites. From the tissue samples we got from the corpses inside the wreck, their biochemistry is amazingly similar to ours. The nanites we seeded will at the very least make them ill."
The saurid technician considered that. He knew just what the first-generation nanites were capable of. There was a reason why they were supposed to take a century to terraform the planet. There was only so much energy available. "And the worst case?"
"I'm afraid I'm not entirely certain. If they weren't already so much like us I wouldn't put them in any danger. But the nanites don't need to put any energy into massive biochemical alterations. You know what those particular nanites are programmed to do to animals of a certain size on that plain."
The saurid homeworld of Kindara had many species of large herbivores. "By the Mover..." Gannett swore. He turned to call Sacram.
Only a few pieces of the alien technology had survived large enough for Cotham to puzzle over. While the most critical survival equipment had survived the crash, laboratory instruments weren't among them. Most labs had been in the Beagle's outer hull to begin with. The only things she had left were a few hand scanners and limited battery power.
However the alien probe worked, whatever volatile chemicals it had carried were destroyed in the explosion. But she could at least tell what was toxic and what wasn't. She had a piece of sensor eye, one of the manipulator arms, and a bit of the plastic-like shell. The circuitry designs she could see was pretty straightforward, having encountered it before with several other races. But the materials were a mystery.
Making the analysis worse were the constant tiny energy spikes, like a static noise, from almost everything on the plain. And they were even starting to appear in the survivors.
Cotham felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to look into the rash-covered face of yeoman Burns. "Hannah," she said. "The autodoc's stopped working again. Something's gotten into it."
"That energy static again?" Cotham asked.
"This planet hates us, doesn't it?" Burns replied, scratching the rash. All of them had skin conditions. There was nothing edible by humans, and wouldn't be. Even the basic sugars didn't have quite the right chemical composition, and the equipment the humans had left couldn't convert it. "I think the autodoc choked on the tissue analysis from this rash. If you can at least pull the microscope data..."
"Then you can tell us what this rash is all about." I'm a little more concerned if these bug-eyed-monsters are going to kill us all. But fine, I'll see about a rash first, she thought, irritated. But she had to admit there was a point. Either this planet would kill them, or the aliens would. The dark purple vegetation was even hard on the eyes.
They had years worth of rations, and she had launched the sub-ether distress torpedo in the general direction of human space. But she knew there hadn't been time to make sure it wasn't damaged. There had been so much to do since the battle just keeping the Beagle from flying apart. But even if it worked flawlessly, it would still take years to get to anybody who could help.
At least Earth would know where they were. Whatever was left of them.
Hannah leaned back on the makeshift chair inside one of the three shelter domes. This was the largest one, about five meters across. It acted as storage, infirmary, and lab. It had taken days of trudging back and forth between the camp site and the wreck by the able-bodied to bring what supplies remained. Unfortunately there was a lot they simply could not get to without cutting torches, and they had more important things to think about.
"Landing on this planet was sheer lunacy," came North's voice from the open doorway. Before Hannah could retort, he continued. "But staying in the sub-ether was suicidal. What's the word on our BEM probe?"
"There isn't enough left of it to tell me much. But what I can tell?" The engineer shuddered. "I've never seen technology like this. I can't even tell what some of these pieces are supposed to do. And there's this damned static getting into my sensors."
"Well, I think it's reasonable to assume there's some terraforming or something going on here," North said. "We didn't see any cities. Just those weird power spikes. We landed in a dark area, you know. Negligent energy activity."
"That's why I aimed for it. Remember?" Cotham replied irritably. She switched her efforts to fixing the autodoc. She wasn't as affected by the skin rashes the others had. But for all their ailments, those affected weren't actually incapacitated. In fact, they seemed more restless than anything. "Any luck getting to the vehicles?"
"We don't have enough parts with us to make anything that works, unfortunately. And we won't until we've cut away about ten meters worth of wreckage. We're stuck with the small ATVs for now and however much solar we can collect." North snorted, and scratched at his peeling rash. "I didn't think it was possible to under-engineer one of our Explorers."
Since humanity had discovered faster-than-light drives it had sent out a dozen exploration vessels over the past century. From what they could tell, intelligent life wasn't all that plentiful in the universe. But if the physicists were correct, it wasn't even possible for something as smart as a modern human existed even a hundred thousand years ago. The idea that the laws of nature weren't as immutable as they seemed still hadn't completely worked its way through the scientific community after a century.
Life-bearing worlds were plentiful enough, but the majority of the sentient species they had observed were anywhere from Neolithic farmers to 18th-century preindustrials. And of the dozen known spacefaring races within several hundred light years, only half of those had FTL drives and had only had them about as long as Earth.
Cotham turned back to her repair work on the autodoc, leaving the alien fragments be for now, shrugging at North. "Yes, we're alive. But if we can't get those hydroponics going, we won't last long. I want Berman, Douay, and Burak on cutting detail."
"I'll see to it, 'Captain'," he replied, giving a salute. "I'll put the rest of the able-bodied to work on the stockade."
Cotham sighed to herself. "You do that."
Able-bodied. Of the fourteen survivors, four were too injured to do more than convalesce. At least they had climate control in one shelter. But without the autodoc nobody had more than the basic survival training course that all Earth Exploration Fleet recruits got. They were fortunate enough that this planet didn't have any diseases they could die from because of the different biochemistry.
The acting Captain scratched a rash on her forearm. Don't be so certain about that, Hannah girl,she thought. But the equipment hadn't detected any biological agents. In fact, she didn't know what she was looking at.
But if their condition got any worse, they were simply dead.
I'd damn well better find out!
Gannett's talons went screeee along the floor as flexed his toes, trying to keep his anger contained. "Why wasn't I told about this earlier?" he snarled, head crest rising to full, furious height. "I'm supposed to be in charge of any technology we retrieve! Now I only hear about this discovery after three days?"
To his credit, Sacram did not rise to the body-posture insult. The older saurid knew better than to rise to any challenge from youngsters. "I have only just heard about this myself, boy. That's why I called you. One of the shuttles grabbed it on the way back from the orbital station. Command was as furious as you are now. The pilots were demoted. But I suppose you can forgive them for the enthusiasm?"
"That, yes. But it could have easily been some kind of warhead," the saurid Technician replied, forcing himself to calm down. He looked at the photographic images on the screen behind his superior. "As it is, it looks like some kind of water-borne torpedo. That doesn't make much sense on a starship."
"We need you and your staff to look at it right away," Sacram replied. "As for your other issue..." His fingers danced over the control panel. "Unless the drones in your sector become operational again, we have enough time to plan a 'rescue'. There won't be any more than soft tissue changes. This... this First Contact a very fragile situation. I'm sure I don't need to remind you just how much. Leave it to the diplomats. Though knowing them, they'll spend a month on protocols first..."
A few hours later, Gannett and his crew had the alien torpedo in the lab. His little pack of engineers and scientists pounced on it like hamstrung prey, running multiple scans, trying to get inside of it without taking it apart first. It was three tails long and shaped like a fish. The hull blocked most of the scans, though one revealed the presence of a lot of boron-11 from a slice on the bottom.
"It's a thing of beauty," one of the young engineers said. His head feathers were mussed, his body reeked a little, and his eyes were reddened with lack of sleep. But he had come recommended as an up-and-coming specialist in power systems. "It's a fusion reactor. A tiny fusion reactor." He traced his claws along a spherical bubble about two-thirds of the way down the "torpedo". "The boron is the fuel slug, see. And there's no steam turbine!"
Their own generational asteroid ship was powered by a pair of huge torus-fusion reactors and a magnetic ramscoop at speed. "A fusion-powered underwater torpedo?" Gannett asked, skeptical. No, it had to be more than it appeared. It was damaged, there was a slice through part of the hull in the fuel tank.
"There's a plasma nozzle at the rear," the eccentric engineer replied, reverently patting the back near where the contra-rotating propellers were mounted. "We can pretty much figure out everything about this thing. The AI analysis thinks this is some kind of message torpedo. There's no space for a warhead. It's just a fuel slug, the reactor, a block of memory crystals, and these blades, see. I dunno how it's supposed to reach their outpost or whatever. There's no way it could reach a tiny fraction of lightspeed."
He tapped one of the propellers. "No, it's these that are the mystery, sir. I can't even imagine what they're for. Whatever they made of, they're denser than Plutonium. And the spectra makes no sense." He raised and lowered his tail, shrugging, then went back to what he claimed was a fusion reactor. "I need some boron-eleven. Any chance of scooping some from stores?
"I'd like to power this thing up, see what makes it go. I've been working on the theory behind this design for five years, sir. Now I see this... And it's a century ahead of anything in my head. I'd love to have a chat with one of their engineers."
"Talk to my yeoman about the boron," Gannett replied. This is why he tapped specialists to begin with. His job was to try and put the pieces together. He looked more closely at the "propellers", pinking one with a fingertip claw. It was a sound somewhere between metallic and ceramic. "Some kind of alloy?"
"We have no idea. However they made it, the manufacturing process and materials are simply a mystery," added a chemicals and materials specialist. "As for the weird spectra Crannix spoke of, well, come have a look."
Gannett watched the readouts and graphs on the screen, as well as a multi-spectral image. "This makes no sense," he said with a snort.
"Well, I imagine our nanotechnology is giving them headaches," the xenobiololgist added. "And scales, and possibly tails, if we don't do something."
"It's out of my hands, Kurin. Please, I'm doing my best for them."
"We'd like your permission to spin-up these blades. See what they do," the chemist asked. "We'd like to see how everything works in-place before we start taking it apart. We just need that fusion fuel."
Gannett had had it with alien technology. It seemed that everyone around him were forgetting they had a planet to make habitable, and he still had to figure out what was going on in his sector. Balky nanolathes and energy transfer floaters were far more comprehensible than some scale-less, featherless aliens. "I'm going back to my quarters. Please let me know when you're ready to power that message torpedo up. Take every precaution! See if you can test it outside, if at all possible. I'm going to nest."
One of the major benefits of the saurids' newfound combination of nanotechnology and gravitics was that the asteroid no longer needed to be spun for gravity, and the entire thing had been rebuilt in-flight to conform to that new reality. Gannett himself had been born just as the Reconstruction had been completed. There were pictures on his walls of the old configuration: A six-klick long cylinder of lakes and forests, with the living areas along the hull. Its builders would simply not recognize it. From the outside, now that the impact shield had been reabsorbed, it resembled something from the dawn of the Air Age: a rigid dirigible.
The video-windows inside his nesting quarters showed the layers of rust and white clouds of the gas giant they were orbiting. It simply wasn't the time to orbit their new world yet. And the delay of a couple light-hours wasn't considered critical. Anything that was, there was a single orbital station for realtime.
They've probably sent the diplomats already, he thought with a derisive snort.
Gannett's communicator started beeping just as the deck shook, nearly knocking him off his feet. He leaned against the wall for support and took it off his belt, just as another violent tremor did knock him to the floor. "What in the Frozen Hells is going on?!"
The reply was nothing but static at first, but the next one was good enough to make out words. It sounded like Kurin. "Alien torpedo... reserve fuel... accid... sh... own!"
The shuddering stopped. He pushed the button on the communicator again, already running back down the corridor towards the rapid transit stop. He was several klicks from the laboratory. "Kurin! Kurin, answer! What happened?"
It was several long seconds before there was an answer. "Um... still kind of in shock here, Technician," the xenobiologist trilled. "Have... have no idea what happened. Got a few injuries, but I think everyone's still in one piece. Um, so far. Can't say the same for the lab, though. Wait until you see the video!"
Gannett watched, over and over again, at the sequence of events that wrecked the lab and had nearly cost the life of the young fusion engineer. Apparently there had been some kind of reserve fuel somewhere inside the message torpedo, and their scanning beams had triggered an automated startup routine. He watched as the blades had started spinning. Slowly at first, but the torque from the motors was immense. Dozens of RPMs became hundreds, then thousands. The air inside the lab turned into a hurricane, safety protocols dumping it wherever it could.
"What in the Frozen Hells?"
It was no longer air on the move. In a spreading, turbulent wake behind the torpedo was something he had last seen while boating behind a propjet. A glowing spiral wake, spreading backwards through a new hole in the lab's wall. A shining, twirling mutil-layered helix that fluoresced deep into the infrared, and farther. Anything in a hundred tails of that strange effect was simply gone.
Unfortunately, while none of them were his people, that included five saurids. Gone. Vanished. And presumably dead.
Sacram had only glared at him. Either he found out what went wrong, or there would be some very serious consequences for him.
Over and over again. The same images. No eating, no sleeping. Only the beeping of his communicator brought him out of it. He took it off his belt, dreading what he would hear next. It was the emergency channel again. "Gannett."
"Priority message from Orbital Station One," the delayed voice of his proxy there said. "Five energy transfer floaters became active at twenty-one hundred hours near the alien wreck. Attempted all emergency shutdown procedures, even the new ones, but units did not respond. I've squirted you all the diagnostic data I could coax out of them. Please advise. Bakter out."