Captain Nessa Doyle ran an efficient salvage operation. Small crew, big cargo holds. Runs out to fallen worlds where wolfling species failed to make it past the extinction threshold, that sort of thing.
This trip, financed by her clone sister, promised a high risk, high reward mission. Along with her sister and an alien A.I., the Cold Well carried a cyborg Enhancer, and a member of the Moreau Society with DNA from different species.
Their mission? Salvage tech from the final battle between the Galactics and the Neridians, the advanced human-like wolfling species that the Galactics had wiped out.
Risky. Dangerous. And Nessa didn’t know who to trust.
Dwarf planets — you gotta hate ’em. Plutoids make up the most common planets in the galaxy. They’re like grains of sand on the stellar beach. Small, insignificant worlds, hardly more than giant snowballs left drifting around the stars that give them birth or cast free to wander the darkness between the stars. Planets that would never amount to anything. Nessa wasn’t going to be like one of those frozen little worlds. She had bigger things in store for her.
Their circulation pumps began a harsh clanga-clanga-clang that echoed through the Cold Wells narrow corridors. The air was thick with the smells of humanity and dry so that it left her lips dried and cracking. The low humidity helped fight back the mold that otherwise threatened to coat the inner surfaces of the Cold Wells panels.
Captain Nessa Doyle banged a fist against the nearest panel. It did nothing to disrupt the noise of the pumps. “Spencer! Spencer!”
Spencer Hahn, her engineer, answered from up on the forward deck, his voice exasperated. “What is it?”
Nessa strode forward. Her steps bounced in the .6 gee artificial gravity, ship boots making no noise. Artificial gravity thanks to Galactic tech, just like the Space-Time Coordinate drive. The two things on the ship that she could be confident would continue to function. The rest was cobbled together from parts built by a half a dozen different races, painfully melded together around the core of Galactic technology. It was almost a metaphor for the entire galaxy.
She reached the forward hatch and pulled herself up the ladder steps onto the deck. The cramped bubble perched on the nose of the Cold Well like a blister. She liked the view. Except right now part of the view was ruined by Spencer’s hairy legs sticking out of his shorts beneath a console on the left side of the deck. Matching panels arced around the other side of the deck and her chair sat at the center.
She walked around her chair and dropped into the seat, throwing a leg up over the arm. She shifted and adjusted her holster so it didn’t dig into her side. Experience had taught her to carry the Lottier 65 at all times. It was non-lethal but effective. She liked that about the weapon. She was short, with spiky red hair, and fine pixie features. Not someone that looked particularly intimidating, whether she was dealing with humans or aliens. Except maybe to the Pluffs, but they rarely bought salvage.
“The pumps are clanging again. I thought you’d fixed that?”
From beneath the console, Spencer said, “I did. Patch must of broke. I can’t deal with that right now.”
“What are you working on?” In the background, she still heard the pumps clanging away like they wanted to escape from the ship.
“Air filtration systems on the fritz. Unless you want to become a methane breather, I need to get that fixed first.”
“And if the pumps shut down, what will we breathe then?”
Spencer made cursing noises beneath the console. Then the clanging of the pumps died and stopped. Silence descended like relief from a chronic headache. Nessa swung her leg down off the arm of her chair and leaned forward.
“What did you do?”
“Shut them off. We’ve plenty of air left. Just don’t close the hatches. I’ll work on it once I get the filtration system up and running.”
Nessa sighed. How was she supposed to complete this mission with the ship trying to fall apart around them? “Do you need a hand?”
“What I need is to be left alone. If I needed help I would ask for it.”
Nessa refused to react to Spencer’s tone. They were all independent salvagers, and she hadn’t picked her crew based on their charming skills or winning personalities. They all were searching for their golden ticket to a brighter future, although it did get a little messier than that.
“All right, then we’ll continue our sweep. Just try to keep us alive.”
Nessa got up from the chair and headed back into the ship. With Spencer working on the deck it made sense that everybody else had vacated it. The habitation sections of the Cold Well weren’t all that large. The bulk of the ship was the train of cargo containers clustered around the main body of the ship like grapes. The core held the Space-Time Coordinate drive and the artificial gravity systems. With Spencer on the deck that probably meant everyone else was down in the barn. Nessa headed rearward through the corridors past the mess hall, crew racks, and the secure core sections that housed the Galactic technology drive and gravity systems.
Nestled up against the core section was the barn, where they housed their probes and intersystem craft as well as suits, supplies, tools and printing systems. The air in the barn was cold and smelled of ozone. As she’d expected, the rest of the crew was there, clustered around the holographic displays at the barn’s primary workstation. It appeared as if a whole section of the wall was gone, open to space, with the icy world hanging in front of the group.
Nessa’s current crew was an odd mix, and yet there they stood talking amongst themselves as she walked across the large space of the barn, her footsteps making little sound.
Rachel, historian and librarian, was an Enhancer. Her cybernetic implant piercings glittered in the reflected light. She wore dark blue shorts and a matching halter top, nothing that would interfere with her piercings. Her interest in this mission was the Neridians — the remarkably humanlike alien species that the Galactics had wiped out when humans were still swinging swords. When humans first entered the Galactic scene, a new wolfling race from the Rim, it caused considerable alarm due to their resemblance to the Neridians. Rachel wanted to understand why the Glittering Throng would wipe them out, committing a species-level genocide that wasn’t explained. It was Rachel’s driving passion. She didn’t care about Galactic tech, she wanted to know the reasons why the Galactics had seen it necessary to go to war with the Rim species. Every indication was that the Galactic species were far more intelligent than the younger species, which made their decision more perplexing.
Standing on Rachel’s left was the closest thing they had to an expert on the known species around the galaxy. Marlene was part of something called the Moreau Society, a fringe group that used Galactic technology to incorporate DNA of other species into her own. It was a disturbing, dangerous technology outlawed on many worlds. Marlene turned from the display and her large eyes caught the light and flashed, an inhuman glow. Most of her alterations were beneath the surface. The tapetum lucidum was the visible exception. Her tan shipsuit didn’t fit her well. She’d rolled up the legs, but the waist looked stretched and tight. She lifted a hand.
Nessa returned the gesture as she continued walking. Marlene was sweet, but Nessa didn’t understand her and the other Moreaus. Like the STC drive or artificial gravity, humanity hadn’t figured out Galactic tech. It didn’t seem to follow the rules. The Moreau Pod was the same. It could take a person apart at a cellular level and incorporate the DNA of other species when it put you back together again — but only if you knew what you were doing. Mistakes happened and the lucky ones died. The unlucky survived as Dumpties that could never be put back together again. Initially, people had thought that the Moreau Pod was some sort of immortality machine, that it could take a person apart and make them young again, but that hadn’t been the case. It was specifically designed to incorporate the DNA of one species into another. Other theorists suggested that the Moreau Pod was a method of bootstrapping a species, that it could explain why members of the Glittering Throng were so much more intelligent than the Rim species. It wasn’t through natural evolution, they argued, but by improving themselves with each generation. It could be likened to A.I. improving themselves in each generation.
Speaking of A.I.s, the third member of the group held the attention of the others and wasn’t a natural born human. She looked tall, athletic and blonde, almost unnaturally attractive, wearing a standard tan shipsuit, but on her, it actually looked good. And she was completely inhuman. She was the product of an alien A.I. and was simply called Emissary. She’d been sent to interact with and observe, trading on her near-Galactic level intelligence. Emissary had provided the capability to unlock the keys that let them to this icy little Plutoid in the middle of nowhere.
As Nessa neared the group she focused on the fourth member of her crew, the only other natural human in the barn, and the one person that Nessa understood the least. Her sister and second in command. A stranger that Nessa had only met three months ago, Tina looked like Nessa’s younger twin. The same petite build and fine features, although Tina wore her hair long, straight and blond. She wasn’t wearing a shipsuit, preferring tailored pants and a sleeveless top. Sister was the best term, though clone was more accurate.
Years ago when Nessa’s father had left her and her mother, he had taken cellular samples with him and had cloned his daughter on another world, raising her as Tina. Tina was Nessa’s middle name. It was creepy and weird and Nessa was trying very hard not to blame Tina for their father’s actions.
Without Tina, none of them would be here. It was Tina that had inherited their father’s fortune, and she had financed the mission. They each had their reasons for being here, even if here was an unremarkable icy world.
“What have you got for me?”
Marlene frowned. “Are we still going to have air to breathe? Some of us need to breathe.”
Marlene glanced over at Emissary at that last. Emissary smiled. She was always smiling. “I may not need to breathe, that doesn’t mean that I wish to see you stop.”
Though Nessa didn’t think that Emissary meant it, her tones suggested otherwise. The A.I. hadn’t gotten human mannerisms quite right yet. Close, but those subtle differences were enough to set off a creepy vibe.
“Spencer is working on it right now. I’m sure he’s as motivated as anyone to keep breathing. What do we have on why we are here?”
The group turned back to the holographic Plutoid floating where the wall would’ve been. The exterior projection was enhanced, they were still more than a thousand kilometers from the body and using the drive to hold a relative position. It could’ve been a Jovian moon if there’d been a solar system nearby. There wasn’t. Nothing but the cratered gray body on the screen, one of the countless dwarf planets and planets that drifted through interstellar space. They tended to form in the outer reaches of the solar systems, in the Kuiper belts and Oort clouds around the stars. Close encounters with other systems tended to fling them away from their orbits. Some collided with other planets or were captured by larger planets to become moons. Others, like this one, drifted unnoticed in the deep dark between the stars. Finding it — if it was in fact what they had been looking for — was an incredible achievement. On first glance, it didn’t look as if it had been worth the trouble.
Emissary spoke. “This planetary body does conform to all the specifications indicated in the data from the records.”
“And with all of the dwarf planets in the galaxy, don’t you think there are others that would also match the information we have in those records?”
Emissary smiled. “There is a fifty-five percent probability that this in the planetary body we seek.”
Tina clapped her hands together, grinning. “Come on! Don’t be so negative, sis! You realize how difficult it is to get even that level of precision? The fact that we found this one so quickly, with such high precision makes me very optimistic.”
There it was. Tina’s perpetual optimism and her bubbly outgoing personality. Supposedly they shared the same DNA without any alteration, but if Tina was like looking at a mirror, it was a fun house mirror.
Nessa walked around the planet hologram, studying the surface. Although they had programs scanning and mapping the surface looking for any anomalies — plus Emissary studying the surface — she still wanted unaltered human eyes on the object. There was always the possibility that they might see something that programs overlooked. Humans had a knack for finding meaning in random chaos. Or maybe she was showing her own bit of optimism.
“This is supposed to be where the last Neridian Empire force was wiped out by the Galactics?”
Rachel gestured, rings flashing on her fingers as she manipulated the hologram with her implants. She tossed out a new hologram. It hung, floating above the surface of the planet, the text that had started all of this. A written account, translated again and again, documenting the final extermination of the Neridians. It described in some detail what had happened, but it left out as much as it revealed.
It contained the dry details of the end of a genocide. Numeric figures revealed that the final fifty thousand Neridians had died in the battle, cornered and wiped out by the Glittering Throng ships. For species that were supposedly more intelligent than anything else in the galaxy, it was a dramatic and perplexing show of force. How was it, with their superior intelligence, that they hadn’t been able to reach a better solution than wiping out the Neridians?
Highlights appeared across the text and connected out with bright lines to figures around the planet. Rachel started explaining how well the data matched up, but Nessa was only partially listening.
Were the craters and surface deformations across the landscape due to the battle? Large sections were smoother, newer terrain that suggested the possibility of a subsurface ocean.
She kept coming back to the fact that the brightest minds in the galaxy, inhuman intelligences that she couldn’t even begin to comprehend, had decided that extinction was the only answer for the Neridians. Disturbing. Frightening.
More so when she considered how human-like the Neridians appeared. It wasn’t only that they were bipeds with two legs, two arms and a head with forward-facing eyes. That description could fit a dinosaur as easily as a person. What fragmentary records humans had uncovered about Neridians showed an attractive humanoid race. If you had dressed them in modern human fashions they wouldn’t have looked that out of place on any world with humans. True, their ears ferned out alongside bare scalps, they had markings that varied from individual to individual that might look like tattoos but were genetic coloration. Knees and other joints worked differently but that wasn’t obvious. What was obvious were their fine features and expressive eyes. They had muscular builds and stood two meters tall. Both the women and men, generally speaking, would have been considered attractive — if exotic — by humans. None of the other bipedal Rim species resembled humans so closely.
Nessa interrupted Rachel’s review of the data. “Have we picked up any indication that there are artifacts left from the battle?”
That was the crux of the whole mission. Find the site of the last great battle between the Galactics and Neridians and see if there was anything of value left to salvage.
Emissary answered. “Proximity scans have picked up several anomalies, which may or may not be related to the battle.”
Rachel gestured and the holographic planet spun in response. She spread her hands and the view jumped forward above the planet as if they were plunging to their deaths. It was difficult to resist the urge to grab something.
“Here,” Rachel said, stopping the display. “I’ll adjust the spectrum.”
A bright spot appeared on the surface. It was in a wide, flat-bottomed crater. It wasn’t round. Lines radiated out from the blob-shape and faded with distance.
Tina appeared at Nessa’s side and took her hand, giving it a squeeze. “This is so exciting! There’s really something here!”
“We don’t know what it is,” Marlene said.
“She’s right,” Rachel said. “The anomaly is fractionally warmer than the surface. There must be some source of heat beneath the ice. It may help explain why the surface is mostly smooth in this region. It is consistent with other dwarf planets.”
Emissary shook her blond curls. “Actually it isn’t. Other planets with subsurface oceans are typically found in planetary orbits where tidal stresses and latent radiation in the core helps maintain liquid water. This body is adrift in space and the heat source is highly localized. An artificial source is more likely.”
It didn’t feel right. It took Nessa a moment of staring at the hologram and the display before she realized the problem. “At the scale, we’re talking about, that warm area is around fifty kilometers across at the thickest portions, not counting those radiating areas. What sort of artificial source would heat that much area?”
“Who knows?” Tina clapped her hands together. “We have to go down there and find out!”
The thought of going down there was flat-out crazy. Not until they had a much better idea of what they were facing. She looked at her sister. How was it that they had the same DNA?
“That’s not all,” Rachel said.
The view shifted and the planet shrank. The focus moved away from the planet and focused on a section of empty space. For a moment nothing seemed to happen and then a faint gleaming line appeared in space. An edge of some sort of dark body in space over the planet. A straight line in space couldn’t be natural.
Nessa walked closer and still couldn’t make out any details. It was almost like a mirage that shimmered in and out of view. It barely caught the starlight at all.
“What is it?”
“We don’t know,” Rachel said. “That faint line is all we’ve been able to resolve at this distance. I think it’s probably a heat-sink using waste heat to maintain a position above the surface of the planet. Just a guess.”
Emissary sneered. “Guessing is inefficient. We have detailed measurements on the second anomaly. Speculation won’t produce more data.”
“A satellite?” Nessa said. “A wreck? Something left behind from the battle? A warning buoy? Is it transmitting?”
“It could be dangerous,” Marlene said. “If it is something left over from the war it might be a mine in space or something.”
Emissary rolled her eyes.
“Maybe,” Nessa said. She walked around the display. “We steer clear of it. No probes. Nothing active. Back us off. I want to be able to put the planet between us and that thing if we need to.”
Tina grabbed her arm. “We came here to find what was left behind, not run from it!”
Nessa pulled away. There wasn’t anything familiar in her sister’s face. Tina’s thought process was that of a stranger.
“I was with an expedition once on Ratan 450.”
“That’s a fallen world,” Marlene said.
Nessa nodded. “Right. Typical Rim species, one that didn’t make it past the extinction threshold. Magnificent ruins. Our expedition leader was wealthy and inexperienced. He wanted to rush in. Only a few of us made it out. We don’t get greedy. We don’t rush in. And maybe we live through this.”
The day passed. Spencer fixed the environmental systems and they kept breathing. The work continued, filling their systems with information on the dwarf planet. The warm region on the surface was measured and analyzed until Emissary and Rachel had identified a network of caverns and tunnels beneath the surface.
Nessa was on the main deck when the news broke. The image on the front display was replaced with a view of the barn. Emissary and Rachel stood in front of an enlarged holographic view of the surface.
“It’s inhabited?” Nessa said.
Tina, at a station on Nessa’s right, swiveled her chair around to face forward.
“Yes,” Emissary said. “Our analysis indicates a network of caverns and connecting passages. The inhabited volume warms the surrounding material.”
Rachel gestured at the hologram and it rotated, turning to show a side view cut-away of the tunnels and caverns. There were dozens of levels, passages, and chambers. The whole thing stretched over fifty kilometers and half that distance deep. The dense network looked like an inverted cityscape.
“How many people could live in that space?”
Rachel pulled a section into a higher resolution view. At this size, the passages had clean straight edges and smooth curves. The chambers varied in size but were largely cylindrical and perpendicular to the passages.
“Difficult to say, since we don’t know who they are or anything about them. If they were human, depending on the population density, there could be a hundred and fifty thousand at least in that amount of space, allowing for food production and industrial needs.”
A hundred and fifty thousand living beneath the frozen ice of the planet’s surface in a tiny pocket of warmth. Not humans, aliens. How many options were there?
“They could be survivors,” Tina said. “Maybe the Neridians didn’t all die, and some of the took refuge on the planet?”
Spencer spoke up from the other side of the deck. “Doubtful. Would the Glittering Throng have overlooked something like that?”
Beside him, at the next station, Marlene shook her head. “Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they left a few behind rather than drive the entire species into extinction. This might be a sort of preserve.”
A terrifying thought, if it was true. What would the Galactics do if they realized someone was poking around? Maybe that object in space was some sort of monitor. She leaned forward in her seat. “Is there any indication that they are aware of us?”
“No,” Emissary answered from the barn. “Most likely they are dying.”
Nessa sat up straighter. “What?”
Behind Emissary the holographic display slid and focused on the edge of the warm area. Enlarged, it was clear that the network continued for quite some distance beyond the warmer tunnels and chambers. Ice blue lines ran out along those tunnels and chambers, highlighting them against the dark ice. The view pulled back and the tracing continued until there was a vast network around the warm area which was less than a quarter of the entire area.
“As the display indicates,” Emissary said, fingers interlaced, “the abandoned sections occupy much more space than the core that remains warm. It is suggestive that their numbers have dwindled.”
Tina said, “We don’t know that. Maybe it’s room for them to expand.”
“Unlikely.” Emissary smiled. “I believe it is more likely that the species expanded when resources, particularly power, were abundant and that the population has fallen along with resources. We’ve already detected fluctuations in the heat output. In any case, speculation won’t answer our questions and yet you continue to speculate.”
“You’ve played your part in that,” Nessa said. “And speculation isn’t pointless — it’s imagination that propels us. There wouldn’t be any salvage mission without it.”
The idea that the population was dying had certainly captured her imagination. It wasn’t what they had come here to find. They had imagined recovering something of either Neridian or Galactic technology in the debris of an epic battle. Or even artifacts of historical interest. No one had imagined survivors out here.
“Suggestions?” Nessa asked.
“We need to go down there,” Tina said immediately.
That was a terrifying thought. They didn’t have much in the way of weapons. A couple Lottier 65s loaded with paralytics for known species and shock darts for non-organics. Nessa touched the one she carried. There was no telling if either would be effective on whatever was down there.
Marlene gestured and a new display appeared on a secondary screen. “This looks like an access point. The resolution at this distance is poor, but it could be a hatch.”
Or a crater. The image showed a depressed circular area over one of the dim tunnels. It looked like the tunnel led up to the depression. The edges were sharp, or at least it looked that way. On closer inspection, it might appear quite different.
Spencer snorted. “You’re all mad if you want to go down there. You don’t know anything about what might be in those tunnels. If that is a hatch, it doesn’t look like the tunnel is even heated any longer. You’d have to get through that to reach them. You’d be going in blind. That’s a good way to die.”
“And if we do nothing and they die?” Tina said. “We have to do something!”
Nessa turned and looked at her sister-clone. “What do you think we should do? Give them our ship? It’s not going to hold very many.”
“Not the ship, but we could bring a representative aboard, someone that could go back with us and plead the case for assistance.”
On the screen, Emissary nodded. “It would be possible to rig a remote relay, send it to the surface, and move off a prudent distance before attempting to contact the habitat.”
That wouldn’t eliminate all of the risks, but it was a step in the right direction. Nessa understood what the rest were feeling. The potential plight of whoever was down there weighed on her mind too. If they didn’t do anything about the inhabitants, if they simply left this dwarf planet drifting alone in the darkness, chances were that no one would ever come across it again. If the people down there did need help, then the Cold Well was most likely the only hope. That was assuming, of course, that the people down there didn’t have any way of leaving themselves. Or that no one else knew where they were. There was still that object in orbit. For all they knew this could be some sort of installation or outpost and the people down there wouldn’t appreciate the intrusion. It was a whole lot of unknowns, but they weren’t going to get any answers unless they took some risks.
“Very well,” she said. “Except I want two probe relays and we remove ourselves two jumps away.”
Spencer nodded. “Happily.”
Nessa looked at her sister. “Okay? We’re still taking a chance contacting them, but we protect ourselves and the ship.”
“Okay.” Tina turned back to her station. “As long as we’re not abandoning them.”
Preparations to launch the probes that would serve as relays didn’t take long. Emissary and Rachel configured both probes and deployed the first one unpowered. It tumbled out of the barn quiet and dark. It wouldn’t become active until they jumped away.
So far none of the Rim species had figured out how the Space-Time Coordinate drive worked. The Galactics only provided a vague explanation that the drive altered the coordinates of the ship in space. It had been a humbling experience for humanity to realize that a lot of Galactic technology didn’t fit with established human theories of how the universe operated. As accurate as the models appeared, they were still approximations that failed to unify or explain how the universe worked at all scales. Some believed that humans and other Rim species simply weren’t intelligent enough to understand how the universe worked. Nessa didn’t believe that. She didn’t doubt that the Galactics were smarter, but she also thought that humanity would catch up. The chilling question was, what if that was what happened with the Neridians? Had they been too smart for their own good?
“Jump completed,” Spencer said, as the planet disappeared from view. “We’re a hundred A.U. from the dwarf planet.”
“Launch the second probe,” Nessa said.
Down in the barn Emissary and Rachel guided the probe into position on the rail. Emissary sealed it in the launch tube while Rachel activated the sequencing.
“We have a connection to the first probe,” Rachel said. “Launching. Probe away.”
Nessa glanced at Spencer. “Take us another 100 A.U. away, pick your heading.”
“Sure thing.” Spencer entered the commands and the view shifted again.
“How’s the connection?”
“The connection is stable,” Emissary said. “Displaying the feed from the first probe.”
The view on deck changed again. The dwarf planet reappeared. The probe lacked a STC drive but it did have a gravity drive, the same sort that was used in everything from flitters to spacecraft for local travel. The display showed that the probe was on target and headed straight toward the circular formation that they’d taken for a hatch. The probe descended quickly and the closer it got the formation looked more artificial. It was a structure built within a crater. Watching the images it was hard not to feel like it was them descending to the planet. Nessa forced her grip on the arm of the chair to relax.
“1000 meters,” Spencer said.
It looked a lot closer than that, or the hatch was larger than she had thought.
The hatch — if that’s what it was — didn’t fit within the view any longer. The probe continued straight down to the center. The material was dark, matte, but not black. It was probably made out of local materials.
Lines were now visible on the surface dividing the circle into triangles, and each of those wedges was covered in what looked like diamond-shaped scales of a smooth dark material that drank in the light.
Nessa pointed. “Ideas about the scales? Could those be some kind of solar array?”
Rachel answered. “They could be. Some of our colonies have similar arrays. Out here they wouldn’t be very effective. You would need to be in orbit around a star for those to gather any useful solar energy.”
“With our tech,” Spencer said. “Who knows about this? Maybe they can drink starlight? Might also be radiating fins to dump waste heat.”
Marlene turned in her chair. “Maybe this was designed as a generation ship? It may have been a colony on the outskirts of a solar system at one time. Maybe they decided to leave.”
“Such an action would be ill advised,” Emissary said. “If they were using solar radiation to power the colony, they would be giving that up by venturing further from their star.”
“That single area couldn’t possibly power an entire colony,” Rachel said.
Tina turned in her chair. “I think it’s brave.”
“Ten meters. Coming in for landing.”
The probe floated down towards the center of the artifact. The probe had targeted a circular region at the center where the triangles came together that was devoid of the scales.
Nessa glanced at Spencer. “Can we get another view?”
He grunted and tapped commands into the console. Two additional windows opened on either side of the main view. The left had side showed the horizon out away from the probe. From the angled view it was clear that the scales were angled as if to catch the light of the distant stars. Light wasn’t reflected from the scales except right at the bright edges that made them visible. The centers were dark and featureless, drinking in the starlight. The right-hand view showed the same sort of thing except there were hills visible on the distant horizon, low slumps of material.
The probe descended right down in among the scales in that bare spot. The view steadied and the images on each side showed the scales rising up from the surface around the probe. They all angled back toward the bare patch and the undersides were as dark as the topsides. The probe sat in a well of inky blackness.
“We’re down,” Spencer said, unnecessarily. “All systems showing green.”
For the next few moments, no one did anything except watch the displayed views. Nessa rubbed her fingers along the smooth material of her chair. Nothing had reacted to the probe’s arrival yet. No movement. No lights. Nothing blasted the probe. She had to remind herself that it was just a feed relayed through probes, that it wasn’t the Cold Well’s crew sitting on the surface.
Nessa broke the silence. “Let’s say hello and see if anyone answers.”
Marlene entered commands into her station. “Sending standard greetings, Galactic translator is tied in.”
More Galactic tech. Sometimes she wondered if the Cooperative had the right idea with their focus on human-engineered tech. They used systems they could understand — with the exception of the STC drives that made interstellar travel possible. Word was that they had run into trouble further out along the Rim towards the edge of the galaxy.
“No response yet,” Marlene said.
Everyone waited and gradually the minutes passed and the tension on the deck ebbed, replaced with boredom. Whoever was living in the dwarf planet, it didn’t seem like they were answering calls.
Nessa rose from her chair. “Notify me if anything changes.”
She turned to Tina. “If I could have a word with you?”
Tina’s expression tightened, but she nodded and left her station. Nessa led the way down off the deck. Other than the crew cabins there weren’t a lot of private areas on the ship. She headed to the galley. With everyone else occupied it’d be empty. Tina followed without asking why they were leaving the deck.
The galley wasn’t much to speak of, just another cylindrical room with a table at the center and enough seats for the entire crew. Appliances were all built into the walls and Nessa took a moment to dispense a coffee bottle. The insulated metal bottle was cool to the touch, in contrast to the scalding hot coffee inside. It was strong, the way she liked, dark with a rich flavor. It was one of the better things that the automated galley produced. As she turned around, Tina was standing with her arms crossed just inside the doorway.
Nessa gestured at the serving wall. “Get yourself something, if you want?”
Tina shook her head. “I don’t drink coffee.”
One really had to wonder what had happened in the cloning process. “Okay then. Can you tell me why you’re so eager to jeopardize our lives?”
Tina gaped at her. Her mouth shut and she shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about wanting to rush into unsafe situations. I’m talking about putting your curiosity before the welfare of the crew. It also puts me in a difficult situation as captain having to override you all the time. I would appreciate a little more solidarity.”
Tina’s eyes narrowed. “Just because I’m a clone doesn’t mean that I’m going to agree with you. We’re not the same person. And don’t forget who financed this expedition.”
“I haven’t forgotten that father’s money financed this trip. And I don’t expect you to agree with me on every single point. I do expect you to put the crew first. Rushing down there could have proven extremely dangerous. Contact situations have been known to go very wrong, very fast. If these people picked this location in order to stay away from anybody else they might not be happy to see us here.”
“Or they could be very happy to see us because they need our help in order to survive.”
“Could be.” Nessa nodded and sipped her coffee. “The point is, we don’t know and we need to proceed with caution, thinking of our crew first. If and when we determine that the inhabitants aren’t a threat we need to follow procedures for making closer contact. Even then I may choose to do it through a proxy rather than going ourselves. Before you blurt out a suggestion that would put us all at risk, I would appreciate it if you would think about the crew and make their safety your first consideration.”
“It’s not like I want anything to happen to anyone,” Tina said.
“I believe that’s true. Let’s work together to make sure that the crew knows that we value their safety. Okay?”
That gained her a grudging nod. Nessa didn’t expect her sister to be happy about being corrected, but she hoped that Tina would take the point to heart.
“Was there anything else, Captain?”
There was a touch of something in Tina’s tone, the way she said captain. It wasn’t worth confronting right now. She’d gotten what she wanted and their budding relationship already had enough strain.
“No thank you. Are you sure you don’t want to grab a snack? We could just talk. It may be a while before we get any response.”
Tina’s posture relaxed slightly. She stopped hugging her chest and shook her head. “Thanks, another time. I want to go back over the records of the final battle. I want to check if there was any mention of inhabitants on the planet that was described. It’s possible that this is the right location, or it could be some other planet.”
“Sounds like a good idea, let me know if you find anything.”
“I will.” Tina disappeared back into the corridor and was gone.
Nessa leaned her elbows on the table, her hands cupped around the coffee bottle. Across the galaxy, scattered across the Rim were billions of planets. Many of those were in the Goldilocks zones around their primary star, secondary binary stars or even as moons around gas giants and other bodies. The potential range of habitable worlds was unknown even now. And across the Rim wolfling species rose and fell when they hit the extinction threshold. Some of the extinct species had made it out from their world and established permanent habitation within their system — without ever crossing interstellar space or making contact with any of the other Rim species or Galactics. A few — like humanity — ventured out beyond their solar system and came to the attention of the Glittering Throng. It was a test of sorts and those who had passed generally benefitted from gifts bestowed by the Galactics, such as the gravity and STC drives, power sources and the Galactic translator. Gifts or more trials, the jury was still out. Some theorized that there were other extinction thresholds to cross. Humanity had already jumped into a war with another Rim species, the Nosferans. The Nosferans had teetered on the brink of extinction after the war. It hadn’t worked so well for them.
They hadn’t come out here expecting to find anybody that might need their help. It’d been a long shot, the idea that they might discover the remains of Galactic or Neridian technology from the final battle. If this didn’t pan out there were other Rim worlds covered in the remains of species that hadn’t survived past the extinction threshold. Many of those worlds would have plenty for them to salvage. She sipped her coffee. It might be worth prioritizing potential worlds now. She wasn’t getting the feeling that this dwarf planet was going to pay off. Whatever was down there, it had the feel of a tomb that was best left undisturbed.
Contact came three hours later. Nessa was on the deck reading survey reports of possible claims. This latest report was typical. Bare facts regarding the primary star, the system and the dead world that had been locked in a warming trend caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The feedback loop had wiped out those that created it and now the planet was beginning to recover. The surveyor included dramatic images of buildings rising up, covered in vegetation. The ruins were a chilling reminder of how close humanity had come to a similar fate.
Spencer raised the alert from the engineering station on deck. “Something’s happening at the hatch.”
It was just the two of them on the deck. After all the waiting, Nessa had assigned the others shifts to monitor the probe for any reaction to the surface while it gathered what data it could.
Multiple windows spilled open on the forward view. The center image was the one that Nessa focused on. Faint twists of vapor rose from the surface of the hatch.
“Thermal gradient is increasing.” Spencer gestured and a new window took the forefront. In infrared, the hatch had begun to glow compared to the darker material of the surface, just visible along the far rim, and the cold scales rising around the probe.
“If they’re warming it, they might be getting ready to open the hatch. Hop the probe over to the edge.”
Nessa opened a channel to the rest of the ship. “All hands on deck. We have activity on the planet.”
Tina reached the deck almost immediately. She must have already been on her way. She slid into her station at Nessa’s right. “Have we picked up any signals?”
“No, nothing.” Nessa flipped through the camera views of the probe still sitting on the hatch. “Spencer?”
“Working on it.” Spencer was busy with the probe command controls.
She had to let him work. The sequence had to be done right to avoid any miscalculation that could damage the probe, the hatch itself or the scales.
On the screen, the probe drifted up above the hatch and the surrounding scales. It floated sideways over the scales and before long reached the edge. The probe began its descent and reached out for the surface with silver legs just visible in the bottom camera. Jointed feet dug into the icy surface to anchor it in the light gravity.
“Contact established,” Spencer said. “Surface stable.”
As yet the hatch looked unchanged in the visible light spectrum. Seen from the edge the array of scales spread out around the circular area. All of the scales looked to be at the same height as if the surface was flat. In the infrared view, the surface was visibly warmer.
“They’re powering up,” Tina said.
Nessa looked over at her clone sister. “You got here fast.”
“I was coming up anyway, I was listening.”
“I thought I said to get some rest.”
Spencer cleared his throat. Nessa looked over at him and he pointed to the screen.
“We’ve got other things to worry about just now.”
Marlene, Rachel, and Emissary all came onto the deck right then. Marlene and Rachel took seats at the other consoles while Emissary remained standing next to Nessa’s chair. Other than giving them a nod of acknowledgment, Nessa’s attention was on the screen. Spence was right. Things were happening. The scales were moving. In a smooth motion like a ripple on a pond, the scales folded back into the hatch. No sooner had the scales folded down flat than the triangular wedges they’d noticed earlier began to rise. Hinged at the far rim, the whole thing was opening up like a flower spreading petals to the sky.
“Are those going to block the view?” She looked to Spencer.
He shook his head. “The probe is between two of the wedges. They shouldn’t be a problem.”
The scaled wedges continued opening. Nessa expected light to shine from the opening but there was nothing in the visible light spectrum. The infrared view showed a fountain of light rising out of the hatch. That had to heat escaping along with some gases. Not the most energy-efficient opening, which might explain why it was powered down when they had first arrived. The inhabitants probably closed off the sections that they didn’t need and maintained them at minimal levels.
Emissary laughed. The sound made grated on Nessa’s nerves. She saw Marlene jump in her seat.
“Look at all that waste heat! A very inefficient design,” Emissary said, smiling at them as if they should get the joke.
No one offered any commentary. Attention went back to watch the screen as the wedges continued to open even more. They were nearly vertical now so that the view was framed by two tall triangular patches of darkness. The wedges hadn’t stopped. They moved past 90 degrees and started to descend to the surface. Nessa looked back at Spencer.
“Will we have clearance if that goes all the way to the surface?”
“We might have to back it off a bit. The probe’s automatic avoidance routine should take care of that fine.”
“I’d prefer if you did it now.” Nessa looked back at the screen. The wedges continued to descend towards the surface. The probe perched at the edge of the hatch between the two wedges. If the sides came down much more they might clip the probe. “Now.”
The view jerked as the probe scuttled backward away from the descending wedges. Moments later the wedges pressed down into the surface around the hatch.
The view steadied. “We’re clear now.”
Next to Tina, Rachel said, “I still don’t see anything inside.”
She was right. There was nothing to see in either the visible light or infrared views, although in infrared it was possible to see the distance wall of a shaft descending into the surface.
“Are we analyzing the gasses escaping?” Nessa looked at Marlene.
“Yes.” Marlene gestured and a new window opened at the bottom of the screen. “Mostly nitrogen. A few trace gases.”
Rachel said, “In mothballed Enhancer colonies we leave it pressurized with a nitrogen-only atmosphere for storage.”
“We’ve got more movement.” Spencer’s voice was tense.
A black head rose into view at the center of the open hatch. Soon shoulders came into view. It was someone in a featureless black spacesuit. It didn’t reflect any light from the stars above, not even a glimmer. Even in the infrared view, he was more an absence of anything. A void in the darkness. Against the heat escaping he was a shadow given life.
Nessa leaned forward studying the figure. “Look at that. No leakage. Not heat, no reflections, as if the suit drinks in the light. He could be a black hole.”
“Strange.” Emissary cocked her head. “Unexpected.”
Tina said, “Why? What’s strange?”
The whole thing screamed strange. And danger. A cold chill crawled down Nessa’s spine. They weren’t on the planet but it felt as if the featureless figure was somehow staring straight at her. All it could see was the probe. They were the width of a solar system away.
The platform carrying the figure reached the top of the shaft and stopped just beneath the level of the panels now lying open on the frozen surface. The shadow figure was humanoid — so humanoid it could’ve been a human figure standing there. Was this person human? Had they stumbled onto a human base?
“That suit must be combat gear.” Rachel gestured and the window with the probe’s visible light view expanded. “It doesn’t register in visible light at all. It’s an invisibility suit.”
Side-by-side with the infrared window it was obvious. In the visible light window, there wasn’t anything on the platform. The dark shadow in the infrared view moved with an odd gait. It took a couple bounding steps before Nessa realized what was odd about the gait. The knees bent backward. Just like the Neridians.
She turned to Spencer. “Spencer! Trigger the probe to launch!”
The figure was running fast now, nearing the side of the hatch. Each bounding step carried it like seven league boots across the wide open hatch. In moments it would reach the probe.
Tina grabbed Nessa’s chair. “What are you doing?”
“Initiating probe launch.” Spencer’s fingers flew across the console.
Emissary moved in a blur of speed, shoving Tina aside as she ran across the deck. Her hand struck out, watching Spencer across the jaw with an audible crack. He tumbled from the chair to the deck, boneless and limp.
Rachel was on her feet in an instant, hand flying at Emissary’s neck.
Nessa looked from Rachel and Emissary to the figure on the screen. Emissary had acted to stop the probe from leaving. Why? So that whoever was down there could reach the probe. Why?
Rachel and Emissary traded blows and blocks. Rachel’s Enhancer augmentations allowed her to stand toe-to-toe with the non-organic A.I. but Rachel was forced to give ground. The fight moved back away from Spencer toward the front view screens. Marlene abandoned her station and hurried to help Tina up from the deck.
There was only one thing that the figure on the surface could be — a surviving Neridian. An entire colony of survivors. Had to be. Somehow someone had escaped the Galactic’s notice in the final battle. Or the Galactics had pulled the last punch and left a few survivors on this frozen dwarf planet. They must have burrowed into the ice, developed a colony and survived all this time. Thousands of years trapped in a dark world between the stars.
The probe was their communications link with the ship. Emissary was somehow connected with the Neridians. She was that one that had helped calculate the location of the dwarf planet. Was she a leftover relic? Had she been hiding in plain sight, seeking answers about her creators?
There wasn’t any time right now to figure out those answers. The Neridian had nearly reached the probe. With the probe, the Neridian could gain access to communications with the Cold Well. There was no telling what Emissary had done but it had to be stopped.
Rachel and Emissary grappled and collided against the deck wall. Nessa accessed her command sequences. She brought up the probe’s controls. On the screen the figure was right on top of the probe, filling the view with that darkness. There wasn’t time for anything else. She couldn’t let the Neridian access the probe. She triggered both probes to auto-destruct and fuse their cores. The views from the probe vanished the instant the connection was terminated.
Emissary shoved Rachel and the Enhancer flew back and collided with Tina. They both tumbled to the floor. Nessa had a sense of Emissary coming straight for her.
She rolled out of her chair. She heard a loud smack behind her and as she came up Emissary was turning and Rachel was falling again.
Nessa drew her Lottier 65 and fired. The shock darts caught Emissary in the throat. She stiffened, eyes widening and then she collapsed. Nessa kept a wary eye on her. With an organic target, the Lottier fired nano-paralyzers coded for 150 Rim species. The shock darts were designed to take down a non-organic, with varying results. Technically the Lottiers were classified as non-lethal weapons but the effects varied and a dart in the wrong spot could prove fatal. Hopefully not in this case. She wanted answers.
Her crew was recovering. Rachel and Tina helped each other up while Marlene went to check on a groaning Spencer. Nessa kept her aim on Emissary. She wasn’t moving but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t reboot in a moment.
“Secure her,” she said to Rachel and Tina. “Make sure she won’t get loose if she wakes up.”
The STC drive carried the Cold Well far from the dwarf planet drifting in the dark. Nessa didn’t dare take the ship back anywhere close to the planet. She sat in her chair on the deck, elbows on her knees, going over it all in her head.
It looked like Emissary had orchestrated the whole thing. She had made the connections necessary to bring Nessa together with her clone-sister who was able to bankroll the mission by leaking the information to Tina that she had a sister who ran a salvage ship. They both had questions about the death of their father, whether or not Emissary had a roll in that as well. Emissary had also deciphered the information from the known accounts and discovered the probable location of the final battle. Emissary wasn’t talking yet, hadn’t recovered to answer questions.
Had Emissary known about the survivors? If so, how? What was she? A Neridian artifact hiding in plain sight? She had claimed to be a representative from an alien A.I., designed to learn from and interact with humans. Were her creators Neridians, or some other species interested in Neridians? What was the artifact that was in orbit around the dwarf planet? Had the Galactics purposefully left survivors on the planet?
Nessa sighed. There were so many more questions. And what was she supposed to do with all of this? She pulled up an ancillary screen and the footage from the probe right before the destruction. The alien bounding across the surface almost looked human. Almost. Too long. Knees didn’t bend right. The featureless dark suit, invisible in visible light, that drank in starlight. It was nothing but a living shadow coming toward the probe.
The auto-destruct would have triggered an implosion that fused the probe’s systems into a lump. A safety system to prevent the Galactic technology it contained from falling into unwanted hands. It was doubtful that the Neridians could extract anything useful from it.
Only one Neridian had come out of the hatch. Given the size of the habitable area beneath the ice, there had to be a considerably larger population.
The Galactics had rejected the Neridians’ appeal to join the Glittering Throng. The Rim species was determined to be too dangerous, according to some accounts. She’d heard rumors that spoke of “endless worlds of sorrow” wherever the Neridians set foot. History was written by the victors and everyone seemed to agree that the Neridians were war-like and dangerous.
She couldn’t be sure that what they had seen, that this black shape in the recording was, in fact, a Neridian. Maybe so. If she let anyone know about the world others would seek it out. The Galactics would learn of it, of course, and then what? Would they return to finish the job?
“Captain?” Spencer, his voice sounding stuffy from the packing in his broken nose, joined her on deck. “Emissary fused herself.”
Nessa rose and turned. Spencer hung near the entrance. His eyes were dark, hidden by bruises and shadows. The non-organic had hit him hard enough to kill if the angle had been different. Marlene had reported that he was very lucky.
A swell of relief rose in Nessa’s chest but she didn’t let it show on her face. “What happened?”
“I was checking on her, with Rachel, like you ordered. She didn’t respond. We took precautions and checked her out. Bricked. She must have had some sort of personal auto-destruct. Fused everything down.”
Spencer’s eyes widened against the swelling. “What?”
It was simpler. Cleaner. “We can’t risk questions. We give her a burial in space, same as we’d do with any of us.”
“Non-organics don’t suicide.”
Nessa shrugged. “This one did. She was malfunctioning — just look at the fact that she attacked the crew and had to be subdued.”
“Okay.” Spencer crossed his arms. His rumpled shipsuit had bloodstains on the front. “Anything else?”
“Work with Rachel and do an audit and clean reboot of all of our systems. I want to restore us back to our departure state — and make sure that was clean too. I don’t want to take a chance that Emissary left us any nasty presents.”
“We’ll lose the data we gathered unless I archive it.”
“Use hard media, give it to me. Don’t make copies. I’ll hang onto it.”
“Yes, Captain.” Spencer turned and headed back below deck.
Nessa settled back into her chair. She dismissed her screens. It was all precautions. The trouble with non-organics — they could make copies of themselves. Emissary could have dozens, hundreds or more copies out there. Ones that didn’t look anything like the one they had on the ship. Bodies didn’t matter, it was the A.I. inside that counted.
If they were looking for the Neridians then Nessa had to keep that information safe. She needed to make the right connections and figure out how they could handle this. Or maybe just turn it all over to the Galactics. For now, it was insurance that her crew would make it home safe.
If anywhere was safe in a universe with the Neridians out there, waiting in the dark.
This story is the 103rd short story release, written in April 2015. This story takes place in the Moreau Society Universe.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, This Dark, Fermi-Damned Universe.
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.