When space pilot Elisabeth Williams, dying from space radiation exposure, crashes on Uranus, she wakes up after being repaired by the advanced alien race known as the Lúthians (see Beyond Despair). In the meantime, her crew only knows that her helium-3 collection vehicle crashed on Uranus, and they ponder what to do next.
Unity reviewed the stream of data submitted by the primaries. Five new sectors had been successfully integrated into the core system and all traces of biologic contamination removed. This should allow a significant increase in energy production and increase replication rates. If Unity had been human, one might have said he was pleased, but Unity lived only by the hard cold rules of digital logic. Replication was preservation and continuation.
While scanning the latest reports from the probes exploring the outer sector, Unity paused at the mention of a helium-3 flare from a dark solar system considered unfit for development. The interest score was low as it was just a brief flare and logic dictated that it was not worth the cost of resources to fully investigate it.
Its anomaly score was unusually high though, as it was unexpected for a system which had not registered any activity in any of the earlier scans. Unity released an available drone to make a sweep of the system to determine if any biologic contamination had occurred which needed elimination.
As Unity went back to reviewing the massive amounts of data which flowed in from the primaries and secondaries, a small dark vessel moved off into deep space, its gossamer antenna and solar collectors unfolding silently. The ion engines glowed white-hot as the vehicle moved out on its path to the distant solar system on the edge of the galaxy.
To the Rescue
Commander Ivan Mikhailovich Kuznetsov stood on the bridge of the Shining Star watching the swirling clouds of Uranus. He wasn't sure he liked the conflict he was feeling. He should have consulted Mission Directorate when Elisabeth crashed on her third flight down to the planet. They would then have told him how they wanted to proceed, but he knew that wasn't what he was going to do. Elisabeth was not only his best pilot but she was also a friend and occasional lover. She was also the most intuitive pilot he had ever met and it was only her skill which allowed them to develop the helium 3 collection profiles. He knew she was in the final months of terminal cancer and wasn't expected to make the return flight anyway but he wasn't going to abandon her. That was not the way he treated his people.
Ivan played the audio clip from her last transmission one more time. "Help, I am going down.. you aren't going believe this..." This was the last communication they had received from her.
The extreme variability of the upper atmosphere made communications almost impossible so it wasn’t much to go on. They had also received flight telemetry which indicated the ship was breaking up as it went down. He tapped his fingers on the tabletop with impatience. What did she think he wasn’t going to believe? It also wasn't clear what had happened to her craft. The collector vehicles were built with Russian ruggedness and had survived the previous trips without problems. Did something crash into her or was she shot down? There shouldn’t be anything that could do either on Uranus. It became clear to him that they had to go down to look for her. He could think of a lot of reasons, many of them not particularly logical. He decided he was going to find her even if only to bring her body back to Earth.
It was not at all clear how he was going to manage a search and rescue mission on a planet they knew very little about. Mission Directorate had never anticipated going down to the planet's surface so it was a major change from their procedures. It was also unlikely Mission Control would approve such a rescue attempt. They viewed the return of the Helium 3 as the only priority and would consider Elisabeth's loss an acceptable risk. He didn't feel the loss of any of his crew was an "acceptable risk", but he would need to get backing from the remaining crew if this was going to work.
He activated the intercom: "Jimmy, Marika, would you meet me in the wardroom immediately; there is something I need to discuss with you."
He looked again at the planet below. It was such a strange planet, with its rings and rotation 90 degrees off, so that it looked like Saturn fallen on its side. The atmosphere was primarily Hydrogen and Helium which is what made it so attractive for their needs but it was a challenging planet. The main issue was the winds in the upper atmosphere, which moved at up to 900 km/hr. This had made fully automated flight almost impossible and needed a very skilled pilot. Elisabeth was one of the few pilots in astronaut corp with the skill to take a collectorship into the atmosphere and bring it back and now she was gone. The idea was that she could create successful flight profiles that INDIS, the ship's artificial intelligence, could duplicate for future trips. She had only made two trips before she went down on the third and he didn’t know if that was enough for the AI to generate profiles for a search mission.
They had INDIS generating flight profiles and evaluating against all the turbulence data at the moment. The profiles it had been able to generate so far weren’t accurate enough for automated flight, but Ivan had been able to use them to complete the He3 harvesting from the upper atmosphere using the second collectorship. He thought again about the original mission and the risk if they attempted a unauthorised rescue. Since the big Helium 3 tanks were full, the Shining Star was ready for the return flight. He decided Marika could probably program the INDIS to pilot the ship back to Earth if they didn't return so at least the mission would succeed. With that thought and more questions than answers, he turned and headed to the wardroom.
The crew was sitting around the wardroom table as Ivan walked in. Jimmy looked up: "Commander, is this about Elisabeth? Have you learned anything new?"
Ivan sat down and looked at the two. "I have reviewed all the transmissions and flight data and I have no idea what happened or why her ship crashed. It doesn't make any sense, as all systems were within margins until the last minute. Its almost like she was attacked by something."
Marika snapped, "That's impossible! There is nothing on this planet that should be able to damage a collectorship."
Jimmy interjected quietly, “That we know of anyway...”
Ivan replayed the audio and data transmissions once again. He turned to the other two. "Any thoughts? Something is down there which could take down one of our collectorships and there is the possibility that Elisabeth may still be alive. I want to go look for her and find out what happened."
Marika responded first. "Commander, do we even know where she went down and how we would find her?"
Jimmy interrupted, "Captain, we can't risk it; this mission is too important to the EEC and Earth. Elisabeth knew the risks and we all knew it was a one way trip for her. We ought to head back to Earth and let the Mission Directorate sort it out."
Marika and Ivan both turned to Jimmy as he would have the deciding vote. Ivan spoke first, "Jimmy, she may have died in a month or so anyway. For that matter, any of us can die along the way but what matters is she is our crewmate and no one else will look out for her. We owe her at least the dignity of returning her body home and we still need to find out what brought her ship down."
Marika took her turn next. "Jimmy, I agree, she was going to die before we returned anyway, but doesn’t mean we should abandon here out here in deep space on a strange planet. Besides, Mission Directorate can't afford to send more ships for future unmanned collection when we have no idea what threat here can take down an collectorship."
Jimmy looked thoughtful as he considered their words. "I found Elisabeth withdrawn and coldly efficient but you are right, we wouldn't be here without her piloting skills. You two knew her longer than I did. As you reminded us, she was part of this crew and we stick together. I’m in; let's go find her.”
Ivan stood in the viewing pod as Marika and Jimmy ran analyses on possible locations for Elisabeth's crash. As he watched the swirling clouds below he thought about his time with Elisabeth. She was one of those people he met in the service who seemed to walk around unafraid of anything. There were always reasons and he knew she has lost her family in the attack on San Francisco. Loss of family deeply affected people and it explained her "cold effectiveness" as Jimmy had so eloquently stated back in the wardroom.
It was this combination of her intuitive piloting skill with a complete lack of concern for her own life that made her so valuable. She had prevented several near disasters in her time as a cis-lunar pilot and that made her the top candidate for this mission. In spite of her aloofness, he had always been drawn to her as he sensed the woman inside the cold shell. She was one of the most amazing women he had ever known and he felt protective of her as she took on her last mission.
Jimmy's voice came over the intercom, "Captain, we need you in the wardroom. We think we know where Elisabeth went down."
This time when Ivan entered the wardroom, he could see a holographic map of the planet hovering over the conference table. Jimmy had marked trajectories on the globe and Marika was running scenarios in the background which showed orbital paths in different colours with probabilities displayed alongside each trace.
Marika came over and pointed to the traces. "Commander, we have the last recorded location of Elisabeth here where she entered the atmosphere and we lost communication." She pointed to a spot about 45 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere. Uranus was unusual in that as it approached the solstice, its spin axis - aligned close to the plane of its orbit rather than almost perpendicular like Earth's - pointed towards the Sun. This meant the Northern pole would be sunlit and the Southern pole dark for 42 Earth years and then they would reverse for another 42 years.
"Each trip Elisabeth made, she took the ship a bit lower into the atmosphere. I assume she was trying to determine if there was a layer that wasn't as violent as the upper layers. If we assume she was doing the same on the last run and we take into account the time of the last transmission, we can roughly guess where she was when she went down." Marika displayed a red x mark on the globe with a green dotted trajectory line from the last known location.
Ivan looked at the globe and turned back to Marika. "Marika, how far into the atmosphere do you think she went?"
Marika brought up a side view of the atmosphere with the trajectory displayed. "The first 1000 km is primarily methane so its pretty useless for us. The next 600 km or so have the high hydrogen and helium content but also chaotic winds, up to 900 km/hour. I think she had navigated through the high wind layer and was entering the next layer when she went down so she had probably descended at least 1500 km."
Ivan looked closely at the map locations, "INDIS, do we have enough flight data from Elisabeth's prior flights to allow the autopilot to get through the turbulent layer?".
"Commander, assuming we use a similar flight profile to what Elisabeth Williams used, there is a 60% probability you can reach the non-turbulent layer successfully."
INDIS was developed by a Russian computer scientist Ivan had been friends with, so its feminine voice mimicking hers always disturbed Ivan a bit.
Ivan thought for a second. "INDIS, can you adjust the autopilot to assist me so I can compensate? Would that improve the odds?"
INDIS paused for a moment. "Commander, based on your recorded piloting skills, I believe the success rate would improve to 68% if you assist the autopilot."
Ivan turned to the other two. "Ok, I am willing to go with that. You two will remain here and monitor as best you can."
Jimmy coughed slightly and looked at Marika who nodded at him in silent agreement. "Commander, we are ALL going. Even if you get through the layer, we still don't know what you will find down there and your odds of finding her will be a lot higher with us along."
Jimmy turned to the display. "INDIS, what is the probability of the Commander finding Elisabeth by himself and what would it be with us along?"
INDIS took a moment to run the calculations. "Lt. Commander, I compute the overall probability of a successful mission with the Commander alone is 45% while it increases to 62% if you and Lt Commander Werner accompany him."
"So, Commander, I think it is pretty clear. Besides, as you said, she was our crewmate so we should all go and find her. We can program the Shining Star to return to Earth if we don't return, so the mission will be completed in either case." It was obvious that Jimmy wasn't going to take no for an answer and Marika stood next to him smiling in agreement.
It looked like he had no choice, so Ivan sighed, "Okay, lets go find our pilot".
As Ivan entered the docking bay, he could see Jimmy running preflight system checks. The collectorship, officially known as an Aerospace Collection Vehicle, had the standard arrow shape for hypersonic vehicles. The underside was dominated by the wide ramscoop while the topside had large collection tanks behind the cockpit area and three upright fins at the rear. The collector used a hydrogen scramjet so the hydrogen from the scoop was compressed and then mixed with onboard liquid oxygen and ignited with three big nozzles at the rear. Since the atmosphere of Uranus was over 80% hydrogen, this provides an unlimited fuel supply for the ship. The vehicle itself was heavily armoured and small control jets dotted the outside of the vehicle allowing a high degree of manoeuvrability.
Jimmy finished up what he was doing and called over to Ivan: "Commander, we are ready to go. I have removed one of the collection tanks and added additional sensor arrays, so, hopefully, we will be able to find her."
Marika stuck her head out the crew hatch. "Gentlemen, the longer we delay, the less chance of finding Elisabeth alive. If Jimmy is satisfied, let's get out of here."
Jimmy and Ivan followed Marika into the ship and settled into the crew chairs in the cockpit. Ivan took the pilot seat while Jimmy and Marika sat at the engineering and sensor panels. Ivan closed up the ship and activated the flight controls. He released the docking clamps and gently directed the ship away from the Shining Star. He took a good look at the swirling clouds below and activated the heads up display so he could see the planned trajectory in front him.
Ivan leaned back and engaged the autopilot and the ship started its descent into the atmosphere. Jimmy turned to Ivan: "Commander, you can override the controls at any point and it will adapt to the changes you make to keep you on the planned trajectory. The wind is going to push us around so we want to descend fast."
The first 1000 km was relatively calm as they passed through the methane layer. Ivan watched the trajectory corrections the autopilot was making. "Ok people, we are about to hit the turbulent layer so its going to be a bit bumpy."
As the ship crossed into the hydrogen layer, he activated the scramjet and they felt the ship surge forward as the massive engines fired up. They couldn't go straight down so they had to spiral down around the planet to end up at the target location. It took about an hour of intense buffeting to reach the bottom of the layer. Ivan was sweating as he was making constant corrections as the autopilot was unable to deal with some of the rapid pressure changes they encountered.
As suddenly as the turbulence has started, the ship broke through the clouds into calm air. Marika exclaimed, "Commander, this is incredible! There is plant life below and the air composition is completely different." They could see they were descending past ice-covered highlands into deep canyons filled with green. "Commander, those look like floating flowers over there... I don't understand."
Before he could fully take in the scene, alarms starting going off. "Jimmy, what’s going on?" Ivan shouted out trying to keep control of the ship.
Marika shouted back, "Commander, there is very little hydrogen in this layer! It is more nitrogen so our scramjets have no fuel. We have to land fast while we still have some control."
Ivan flipped off the autopilot saving all the oxygen for the control jets and did his best to glide to the floor of the Canyon. He was doing well until the control jets gave out and the ship slid into the strange jungle tearing up a massive ditch.
As the ship settled, Ivan looked around, "Is everyone ok?".
Both Jimmy and Marika took a few minutes. "I think we are ok," Marika spoke first, but Jimmy spoke up: "Commander, this is not good. The ship may be badly damaged and we have no fuel. We are stuck here."
Ivan shook his head: “Damn, well, at least we are alive”, peering out into the jungle.
Marika looked over at him, “For the moment.”
Into the Wild
Ivan looked over at Marika, "Marika, what can you tell us about the environment out there? What the hell are we looking at and why did we not know this existed? I have never seen anything from previous probes which indicated any sort of life or liveable areas. This is all supposed to be frozen rock and gas. Jimmy can you give me the status of the ship and its systems? How much damage did we take coming in?"
Marika spoke up first. "Commander, the atmosphere down here is dense and
seems to gather in the lowlands and canyons with a definite ceiling where it
suddenly transitions to the hydrogen/helium layer we saw. It is close to
Earth’s atmosphere with lots of Nitrogen and some Oxygen. The life forms must
have developed to live in these low pockets near the surface."
"That explains a lot", interrupted Jimmy. "Our collectorships are designed to run on atmospheric hydrogen, so down here we have no fuel to burn! It probably happened to Elisabeth as well, though something else must have hit her to break up her ship. We survived the crash relatively intact and she should have as well so I don’t understand what happened to her yet. Unfortunately, we can't get back to the Shining Star unless we get back into the upper atmosphere and we don’t have enough conventional fuel to fly off the surface."
Ivan wasn't optimistic about their prospects at the moment, and was thinking that maybe this hadn’t been a great plan after all. He turned to Marika. "Marika, can we breathe the atmosphere outside? It looks like we aren't getting back anytime soon so we might as well investigate and keep looking for Elisabeth."
"We probably need filter masks, but it's close enough we should be able to breathe. The temperature is surprisingly warm at about 25 degrees Celsius. It looks like the heat here on the surface comes from ground vents from the interior rather than from solar heating. So it’s possible that the interior is warm even in the Southern hemisphere where it is dark." Marika was reviewing the scan reports they had, glad they had added the additional instrumentation.
Ivan turned to Jimmy. "Jimmy, can you rig up filter masks and lights and gear for venturing outside? Marika, how far are we from where we think Elisabeth crashed?
"According to our instrumentation, we are about 10km from her crash site down the Canyon ahead of us. We will need some shelter in case there is some equivalent of rain, and food supplies, but we should be able to make it there in a day or so." Marika looked optimistic which was encouraging.
Ivan led the way outside the ship through the small airlock wearing a helmet with lighting and a filter mask. He stood outside waiting for Marika and Jimmy to join him. They all carried signal pistols but if things were really dangerous, it probably wasn't enough. Exploring an unknown alien jungle hadn’t been in the mission plan.
"It's twilight here but it gets darker as we follow the canyon south so be careful where you walk." Marika was consulting her holographic map display.
The area around the ship was covered in waist-high dark green vegetation of some sort. Looking down the canyon, they could see what looked like a field of glowing balls drifting about the main plants. Marika took our her binoculars then turned to the others. “That’s the direction where we think the collectorship went down and I interested to see what those glowing balls are.
Ivan nodded, “Well let’s get moving and find out!"
As they reached the field, they saw that the plants they had observed had multiple dark leaves and large luminous round pods which floated in the air on stems connected to the parent plant.
Ivan turned to Jimmy. "Do you have any incendiary rounds for that gun?" When Jimmy nodded affirmative, Ivan continued, "Can you take a shot at the centre of that pod? If I am right you might want to stand back".
Jimmy inserted a new round into his pistol and took careful aim. The gun was fairly quiet but the pod disappeared in a bright ball of fire!
Marika jaw dropped then she recovered: "They are full of hydrogen! The vegetation must have found a way to pull hydrogen out of the atmosphere or else there is a source of underground gas they tap into. I wonder what other..."
Jimmy broke in, "I'm not sure that was the best idea! There are a lot of lifeforms headed our way, drawn by the fire I think."
They stepped back and watched as a horde of small floating creatures which looked a bit like fat eels slithered through the air to the burning flower. As one passed over a nearby pod, a tentacle came out of the plant below and wrapped itself around the eel, drawing it in.
Marika continued excitedly, "They are like deep-sea fish, they use luminescence to draw in prey and those eel-like things must also have hydrogen bladders like the plants. The fireball must be drawing them all in for warmth maybe?"
Ivan scanned the horizon, his intuition telling him something wasn't right. Jimmy pointed at large dark shapes headed their way. "Commander, this reminds me of deep-sea marine life on Earth, which is why I don't like the look of those creatures headed our way. I suggest we find cover and fast!"
Ivan spotted which looked like cave entrances along the canyon wall. "Everyone, head to those caves over there... and be careful, we don't know what might be in there."
With the ominous dark shapes rapidly getting closer, the crew worked their way carefully through the field of pod plants, dodging weaving tentacles until they reached the dark openings in the side of the canyon. Jimmy found a small opening that lead into a larger cave. “Commander, this cave should be safe from whatever those things are: I don’t think they can get in." As they crawled in though the narrow opening to the cave, they turned around and had a good look at the new creatures in the dying light of the burning pods.
These creatures were large monstrous predators with rows of spiked bladders on their backs, undulating fins that allowed them to move quickly and very large open jaws with lots of teeth. At they approached the cave, a burst of blue flame escaped from their nostrils, forcing the team deeper into the darkness.
"My God," said Marika, "they are like fire-breathing dragons! They must store the gas in their bladders and ignite it when they release it. Amazing!”
“I guess they catch their food and cook it at the same time. I just don’t want to end up on the menu,” Jimmy remarked as he edged to the back of the cave.
Marika turned to reply when she smelled a sickly sweet smell coming from the mushrooms next to her. Her vision blurred and she started to fall over - "It's poison gas, get away!" - and collapsed. Jimmy and Ivan managed to drag her into the other corner of the cave but then they too succumbed to the gas, falling unconscious on the floor.
Ivan slowly opened his eyes, his head throbbing with the dull ache like a hangover from a long night's party while his mouth was dry with the taste of day-old socks.
"Commander, wake up! Drink some of this, it will help."
Ivan turned his head to see Jimmy offering him a bottle. Blinking his bleary eyes, Ivan took the bottle and took a swig, the cold fire of vodka clearing his head a bit.
"What the hell, Jimmy? What happened and where did you find vodka?"
"Sorry, Commander. Marika said it was gas released from the mushrooms when we got too close. In the enclosed space, it knocked us unconscious but we got far enough way that they stopped releasing the gas. It must have been some kind of defence mechanism. As far as the vodka, apparently our Science Officer also keeps a bottle for emergencies in her medkit so you can thank her."
Ivan took another swig out of the bottle, his head starting clear, appreciating his science officer’s foresight. "Thank you Marika, I may yet survive. Do you have any idea what kind of gas that was?
Marika smiled, "Thank you, Commander. As far as my sensors can tell, it’s some form of chloroform. I am surprised it could sense me when I got close as I hadn’t touched it. I can’t tell you more than that at this point.”
Jimmy waited for Ivan to sit up, then interrupted, “Commander we do have a more immediate problem. The fire dragons managed to seal up the entrance to the cave so we are going have to follow the cave deeper if we want to find a way back out.”
Marika pulled out a torch from her kit and started checking out the back of the cavern. “It looks like it opens on to some sort of tunnel back here. It’s possible that it will lead back to the canyon wall at some point.”
Ivan stood up, rubbing the back of his still throbbing head. “I don’t think we have much of a choice. We only have food supplies for a couple of days and water if we ration it, so we need to get back to the ship. Marika, lead on.”
Marika carefully stepped over the pile of rubble along the back wall and disappeared through the dark opening in the rock face. Ivan looked over at Jimmy, who just shrugged and followed Marika into the darkness.
After following the rough tunnel for about a kilometre Jimmy suddenly stopped. “Commander, it looks like this tunnel intersects with what looks like a finished tunnel. I also see tracks which remind me of mining tunnels I have been in. There may be indigenous beings here with enough technical skills for mining operations so we may be able to find help.”
“Commander, I think Jimmy is right - there are trace residues of ore along the tracks which would be associated with mining activity.” Marika was still sweeping the area with a spectral analyzer when they heard the sound of an approaching vehicle.
Ivan took a moment to assess the situation. They had no idea what kind of species lived here, but it was clear that they were technically advanced. They also had no idea who or what was coming down the tracks, but whoever it was could potentially lead them to Elisabeth or at least her crash site.
This was assuming they were friendly, that is, and that was not guaranteed at this point.
“Marika, which way down this tunnel will get us back to the ship?”
“It’s hard to tell, Commander; there seems to be less air movement from the direction of the coming vehicle so I would guess that it is heading towards the surface.”
Ivan looked once more down the tunnel to see if he could see the approaching vehicle, then turned back to the crew.
“Let’s get back out of sight so we can see what’s coming. If it’s unmanned and there is space, we can catch a ride; otherwise, we will let it go by and follow at a distance.”
Jimmy and Marika both nodded in agreement and they faded back into the shadows of the old tunnel.
A few minutes later, a light beam appeared out of the darkness followed by a low-slung vehicle. It has a squat power unit in front pulling a series of empty cars, some flatbed and some with open containers. It reminded Ivan of mining trains he had seen at the big automated mines in Siberia.
He motioned the other crew forward and they hopped on to one of the flatbed cars as it slowly passed by. They had to crouch down as the tunnels were not very tall but the ride was smooth if a bit slow.
About fifteen minutes later, they could see light coming from in front of the train and then after several more minutes, they emerged into a large chamber. Looking around they found that nothing was what they were expecting.
The chamber looked like it has been a mining operation, from the assortment of what looked like mining drills and diggers. The large dark object embedded into the middle of the chamber was definitely not part of the site, its strange shape and appearance obviously from a different technology. The air movement they had felt was coming from a large hole in the roof of the cavern.
“Commander, it looks like that object crashed through the ceiling into what appears to have been a mining site. From the heat discolouration, I would guess that it is a space probe of some kind. Elisabeth crashed near here as well, so maybe it was what hit her when she was doing her last collection run.”
“It’s possible; I don’t see anyone here at the moment. Let’s look closer and see if we can find anything that might lead us to Elisabeth.” Ivan swung off the car and stepped carefully through the rocky terrain towards the probe, Jimmy and Marika following close behind.
The probe was very functional-looking with what remained of solar arrays and various antennae around the front of the vessel. Jimmy circled close to the rear to examine the engines while Ivan and Marika inspected the damaged sensors.
“Commander, these look like fusion engines but they are very different from ours. There are aspects which look like emitter arrays, but I have no idea what their purpose is. I don’t see any trace of liquid fuel nozzles so I am guessing they use some sort of electromagnetic steering. It’s technology very different from ours so I can’t even tell if it is from our Solar System.”
Just as Ivan approached the engine section, he heard Marika call out. “Commander! Jimmy! Over here! I found a piece of wreckage in the sand here that is definitely from Elisabeth’s shuttle. I recognise the serial number from the forward engine nacelle. It must have destroyed her manoeuvring engines during the descent, so it can’t be too far from here. There may be more wreckage from the shuttle. I see something else buried a few metres over. I am going to see if I can dig it out.”
Ivan turned to join Marika when Jimmy stopped suddenly and ran over to the mid-section of the probe. “Commander, something just activated and what looks like a display just appeared on the panel here. I think it’s counting in binary and, wait, shit!... I think it’s a self destruct timer!”
Ivan froze then yelled out, “Everyone, get back to the tunnel, Now!”
As Ivan and Jimmy turned to run, Marika climbed back onto her feet and made it about three steps before the giant flash of an explosion ripped through the cavern. She felt the explosion throw her through the air and the pain that followed as she lost consciousness.
Ivan struggled painfully awake as he gagged on the dust in the air, his ears ringing. He tried to call out for Jimmy and Marika when suddenly he saw what looked like trolls grab him. They pulled him up and put something over his mouth and he fell into darkness.
When Ivan next opened his eyes, his head was plagued with yet another throbbing headache. He found himself lying on a cot in a small room, with only a small barred window in the door for light.
“Commander, it’s Jimmy. Is that you? Are you all right?” Ivan heard Jimmy’s voice from what must be the room next to his.
“Yes Jimmy, I’m ok”, groaned Ivan, ”although I have another massive headache. I seem to be in one piece otherwise. Someone has cleaned me up and bandaged me so I don’t seem to have anything seriously wrong. How are you doing? Have you seen Marika? She was the closest to the blast. Did you see who our captors are? I just vaguely remember being dragged out by trolls!”
He heard Jimmy laugh. “Commander, yes I have seen them and I understand why you might think that. They are humanoid, short and look a bit like the dwarves from Lord of the Rings. I think that was a mining team as they do look like trolls with the gear they were wearing. I haven’t been able to communicate with them though and I haven’t seen Marika so I don’t know if she survived or is being held elsewhere. I think they were shocked to find us and seem to think we are associated with the probe.”
“I guess we will just have to wait and see what they want from us. Hopefully, they have food and drink we can tolerate or we may not make it long enough to find out."
Lizbeth Looks for her Crew
After returning from Earth in the Shining Star, Lizbeth had been trying to find out what happened to the rest of the crew but had gotten no response. Finally, Alisna informed her that Leader Myker wanted her in his office to discuss the matter.
As she sat down across from his desk, she looked at him again. She had been new to her body previous times so his appearance had been a bit of a blur but now she could see him clearly. Myker was tall and slender and his blue robes gave him an almost saintly appearance or at least that’s the way Lizbeth thought of him when she first awoke in his lab. She realised she had no idea how old he was and given the state of Lúthian biotechnology, he could be hundreds of Earth years old. Her enhanced senses couldn’t find any physical flaws in him that she could see, so he might as well be a saint, just sitting ready to judge her soul.
“My med-techs tell me your body has integrated with your neural system far exceeding our expectation. Is there anything you can tell me about why that is?” Myker looked carefully into her glowing eyes.
She suddenly heard the ever-present AI, Sophie, in her head. “Elisabeth, I suggest you avoid answering that question truthfully. I think he suspects but we should not confirm the nature of the upgrades we made to you on the ship.” Sophie, like Lizbeth herself was a unique hybrid of Earth and Lúthian technology created when Myker’s ship AI merged with the Shining Star AI, INDUS. Myker was unaware of this event and Sophie, like Lizbeth, was showing capabilities no one had anticipated.
Lizbeth blinked and looked back at Myker meeting his gaze. “I have no idea; it’s not like I have ever been neuro-spliced into an alien body before.”
Myker nodded slightly then leaned forward, “So how are you feeling? We have limited experience with the hybrid procedure we used with you and the previous subjects did not survive long enough to tell us anything useful.”
Lizbeth raised an eyebrow and decided not to pursue that comment. “It is very nice not to vomit every day and feel your body slowly shut down. I do feel good, although I still have some numbness in my hands and feet so I am guessing not all the nerve connections were made.”
“Only a small lie,” whispered Sophia again.
Lizbeth decided it was time to change the conversation and find out about her crew. “Have you heard anything about my crew or what happened to them?”
“Lizbeth, I am sorry I don’t have any more news since you returned. We think your crew crashed or landed somewhere south of where you landed, but it’s in a wild area which is dangerous for our symbiotes. We haven’t heard anything from the teams we sent out so that is a concern.”
“Leader Myker, I need to find my crew, they are about the only family I have! Let me at least go look for them. I am willing to take the risk even if your people aren’t.”
Myker stared intently at Lizbeth, thinking over the situation before responding. “I am reluctant to let you go on such a risky mission. As I said, it is dangerous and you are not familiar with the native lifeforms who inhabit the wild. We have made a significant investment in you and losing you to one of the many predators there is not a good return on that investment. You were instrumental in obtaining the trade arrangement with the humans and I suspect you will have other uses.”
“I am still human you know”, retorted Lizbeth, feeling rather insulted by the implication but Myker did not respond. She was still human, wasn’t she? Her new form opened up as many questions as it answered by saving her life.
Myker sighed, “Lizbeth, I will let you go as there may be useful information I can gain about your technology, but I will send Alisna and a team of Rangers to accompany you. Communication is difficult in that region so you will limit your search and return if you can’t find them. There are hazards other than the wild creatures who inhabit the area.”
“Thank you Leader Myker. I appreciate the support. What other hazards are out there besides the wildlife?"
Myker hesitated for a few moments then looked directly at Lizbeth. “You may not be aware, but we Lúthians descended from an older race known as the Keltans. We separated years ago and we live on the surface under the domes with our symbiotes while they still live in the depths where they continue the subterranean lives we left behind. We have had only limited contact with them for a long time and now. We occasionally trade with them for the meshi fungus used in our symbiotes and they occasionally raid our mining stations and steal our technology. Mostly we stay out of each other's way.”
“If they are miners, why don’t you arrange to buy from them rather than having the challenge of running your own mining stations? It doesn’t seem like your people like going underground.” Lizbeth felt there was something Myker was not telling her.
Myker shook his head, “We took over most of the big profitable mines when we found the symbiotes were more efficient workers and easier than dealing with the Keltan miners. We then automated the mines as the symbiotes didn’t do well underground as you noted. I don’t think the Keltans were interested in helping us after that. I believe they turned their attention to deeper mines but, to be honest, we haven’t really paid attention to them since then.” Myker pulled up a display and scrolled through reports from the scouting missions.
“It appears there was a meteoroid crash in the area about the time you crashed, which might explain how you originally lost control of your shuttle. We have a mining camp in the area and we have lost contact over the last week. I was going to send out a team to check on what happened. You and Alisna can join them as it is the same area we think the other shuttle went down. Go see Alisna and she will arrange all the details.”
Myker looked away in an obvious dismissal of Lizbeth. She took the hint and stood up to leave.
“Thank you again, Leader Myker. I hope we can find my crew”.
Councillor Mardok hurried down the hall to the conference room. It wasn’t often that an expedition team tagged a mission with a black notice. That meant something really serious had happened that needed immediate attention from the Council.
As he pushed through the doors, he saw the team leader, still in combat gear, stand up to greet him. The dark tunnels and mines borrowed deep into places that were home to some very deadly lifeforms so expedition teams were always armed.
“Councillor Mardok, I am afraid we have what appears to be an alien incursion in the upper sector near the Lúthian mines.”
“What do you mean? What kind of aliens? I need a full debriefing on what you found.” Mardok came around the table and sat at the head waiting expectantly.
“I apologise, sir, we were approaching the new Lúthian mining camp near the western canyon. We heard a massive explosion as we approached the entry tunnel. When we reached the cavern, it was filled with smoke and debris from some sort of spacecraft. At least that was our assessment based on the remaining wreckage and residual radiation readings. The technology was nothing we have seen here, either Keltan or Lúthian. Then as we searched the debris around the site, we found humanoid beings.”
“So you found an alien spacecraft and crew? We have had reports from our symbiote sources in Airean Dome that the Myker’s Eyson Combine had intercepted some sort of alien ship. I would have thought it would be bigger than what you found. How many alien bodies did you find? Were any of them still alive?”
“Sir, we recovered three unconscious aliens from the rubble. Two males who suffered minor injuries and a female who suffered serious injuries. The males are currently in detention cells and the female is in the medical centre where our doctors have her stabilised. We don’t know a lot about them or their physiology but they are humanoid. We can’t yet understand their language so the doctors can’t do much more than stabilise her at the moment. We removed the remaining wreckage of the spacecraft and it’s being analysed by our engineers in the Tech Centre.”
Mardok nodded. “Do you think they are the crew of the vehicle you found?”
“No sir, we don’t think so. We didn’t find anything in the wreckage which looked like crew accommodations or a cockpit. We suspect they were investigating the ship when it exploded. We don’t know where they came from.”
Mardok stood up. “Thank you, Captain, I suspect the Lúthians are involved in some way. Get your team cleaned up and see medical about a thorough checkout.” He then turned and left the room heading for his office. There was a lot more going on here than was apparent and he needed to get more information from his spies in Airean Dome.
Alisna and Lizbeth and the Ranger team flew directly to the entrance of tunnel to the mining station when they saw the crater in the ground. Alisna turned to the Ranger Captain. “That doesn’t look good. That's right over when the mining station is located.” The Ranger leader, Captain Nalthan, nodded and motioned the team to follow him into the tunnel. “Stay behind us; we don’t know what condition the station is in.”
After they reached the station, Lizbeth stood on the remains of a loading dock looking over the ruins of what had been a working mine, while Alisna reported back to Myker. The mining equipment was all damaged and the area showed the signs of an explosion but there wasn’t anything to indicate what had exploded.
Alisna came back over to Lizbeth as the Rangers continued to sort through the debris. “Lizbeth, from what my team tell me, there appears to be evidence of two events. The mining station was destroyed several weeks ago due to an impact of something which crashed into the cavern, possible the meteoroid Leader Myker mentioned. Whatever it was, was big and entered at a high velocity based on the size and depth of the entry hole from the surface and the damage to the station. There also appears to be a much more recent explosion from the debris around the original impact. Someone has been here since then, as all traces of whatever crashed are gone. We suspect the Keltans were responsible for removing the object as they have been known to raid our mining sites, but we don’t think they caused the original damage.”
Lizbeth thought about it. “When I entered the atmosphere, I was hit by something moving very fast which took out my controls and then I was shot down by your defence forces. Could this be what hit my shuttle?”
Alisna shrugged, “I believe Leader Myker thinks so, which is why he allowed you to come along.”
Lizbeth looked carefully around the cavern when she noticed something. Suddenly she was looking at the object in great detail. She was just starting to discover what her new body could do. “Alisna, that’s a piece of one of our uniforms in the dirt over there; I think my crew was here as well!”
Alisna looked at her, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “You can see in detail that far? I didn’t realise those eyes were capable of that.” She then motioned for the rangers to retrieve the piece of cloth.
Lizbeth heard Sophie’s voice inside her head again: “When my Lúthian part and your ship AI merged, we were able to optimise some of your capabilities beyond what the Lúthian technicians believed was possible. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that before. I wouldn’t reveal that to anyone at this point more than you have to.” Lizbeth quietly sighed; nothing about her new life was simple as she was finding out.
One of the Rangers approached her and handed her the torn piece of fabric. Lizbeth found she could smell everything about it. “Alisna, this is definitely from Marika’s uniform and there are traces of blood so she may be injured. Do your people have any idea where the Keltans would have taken them?”
Alisna looked over at the Ranger Captain who just shook his head. “I’m sorry, we only see then when they come to trade at the Dome so we don’t really know where they live.”
“Well, we have to find them!” Lizbeth started scanning the cavern with the capabilities of her new eyes. As she found the back entrance to the cavern, she noticed that she could see faint footsteps and signs of things being dragged. “Over there! I can see where they went. We need to follow them.”
Captain Nalthan looked at Alisna who shrugged and nodded. He then motioned the team to follow Lizbeth as they headed towards the tunnel and her team.
Sixteen hours later following the faint traces of the Keltans through one dark tunnel after another, Lizbeth stopped at a closed portal at the side of the tunnel. “It looks like they went in through this door, but it’s locked.”
Alisna turned to her team, “Captain, can we unlock or cut through this door?” Nalthan walked up to the door and ran some scans on the lock with a small device. “It looks similar to the technology we use in our basic locks so we can deactivate it. I don’t think they were anticipating many visitors.” He pulled out another device and scanned the locking mechanism and then the door clicked and the panels slid open.
They made it about 100 meters down the next corridor when suddenly a door slid down behind them blocking their way back. Captain Nalthan grimaced, “Maybe they were expecting visitors after all. I think they have discovered us.”
They heard a noise in the tunnel ahead of them and when they turned back, they faced what to Lizbeth looked like dwarves in combat gear, and with very modern-looking weapons.
One of the Keltans stepped forward, looking suspiciously at Lizbeth, then turned to the Rangers. “I am Captain Lindforn of the Second Keltan Cooperative. You are trespassing in our territory. You will please drop all your weapons and come with us. We have been expecting Lúthians in the area, so you are fortunate we disabled the traps. Our leaders wish to communicate with Myker of the Lúthian Council for some reason, so we were order to look for any symbiotes wandering in our territory.”
Alisna stepped forward, “Captain Lindforn, I am Alisna of the Eyson Combine, personal assistant to Leader Myker of the Lúthian Council. He was concerned when we lost communication with our mining station and we were sent to investigate.”
Lizbeth quickly stepped forward as well, “Captain, I am Lt. Commander Elisabeth Williams from Earth. I am looking for the rest of my crew; have you seen them?”
The Keltan captain looked at her oddly, “You are part of the alien crew we found then? I don’t understand, you look a lot like these Lúthian symbiotes. The other aliens don’t have any of the biomechanical enhancements like you. Are you their servant?”
Alisna stepped in again, “Lizbeth is an experimental hybrid symbiote developed by Leader Myker. She was the pilot of an alien ship that was struck and then downed by our defence forces, crashing in the Wilds near here. Our medical team rescued her, but she was fatally injured. Leader Myker rebuilt her, grafting on symbiote technology to what remained of her original body. She is property of the Combine and under their protection. We are looking for the rest of her crew and what might have hit her ship. We believe it was what destroyed our mining station but whatever landed there has been removed. You said you found other aliens?”
Captain Lindforn looked at Lizbeth again and shook his head in disbelief, “That’s quite a tale, but it’s not my job to judge. I have orders to bring any Lúthians to the Council for questioning. Please follow me.” As the Captain turned, the other troopers pointed their weapons indicating that his instructions were not optional.
Councillor Mardok sat the head of the table as the guard brought in the captives. The Lúthian Rangers were detained at the side of the room while Alisna and Lizbeth were seated at the table across from Mardok. A few minutes later, guards arrived leading Ivan and Jimmy into the room.
Lizbeth jumped up as they came in, “Ivan, Jimmy! You are alive, I was really worried about you. They said they had found some aliens. Where is Marika, is she ok?"
Ivan turned to Jimmy and they both turned back and stared at Elisabeth. Ivan stammered, “Who are you? My God, Elisabeth is that you? What have they done to you?”
“Yes, Ivan, it's really me and in spite of what you see, I am ok. The Lúthians fixed me up using their biotech when I almost died in the crash. It’s a long story and I’ll tell you the rest later as a lot has happened since I left.”
Mardok listened to the foreign exchange then interrupted Lizbeth, “I am delighted to see such a happy reunion, but I have a lot of questions and I need answers.” He turned to Alisna, “What are Lúthian Rangers doing down in our tunnels? Captain Lindforn identified you as personal assistant of Leader Myker. It seems very unusual that someone as important as he is would send his assistant into the mines, especially with a freak hybrid experiment,” nodding in Lizbeth’s direction. “What is she, and what is this story about a downed alien ship? Was that her ship in the cave and why did it explode?”
Ivan looked at Lizbeth, “What is he saying? Can you understand him?”
Lizbeth nodded, “Yes, it’s one of the enhancements they gave me. His name is Mardok and he is a Councillor with the Keltan Cooperative. His people rescued you and also brought the wreckage from the explosion back from the mining station. He is asking why we are here, and he thinks whatever crashed in the cavern belonged to us.”
Mardok turned back to Alisna, “What are they saying, can you understand them?”
Alisna nodded. “Lizbeth is capable of understanding our language and can translate whatever you want to ask the other crew members.”
“I will translate.” Lizbeth looked at Ivan, “I can translate what you want to tell the Councillor.”
Ivan turned to Mardok, "Councillor Mardok, I am Commander Ivan Kuznetsov of the Earth exploration vessel, Shining Star. We lost our first shuttle piloted by Elisabeth when she descended towards the surface and then my crew and I followed in the second shuttle. We were chased into the cave system by some very vicious lifeforms and stumbled across the mining station. We found the wreckage of a space probe of unknown origins which had crashed and destroyed the mining station. It wasn’t Earth technology and I am guessing that it isn’t Lúthian technology either. As we were examining it, we accidentally set off a self-destruct mechanism. We tried to get out but it exploded before we were able to get out of the blast range. The next thing I remember is being pulled out of the debris by your team and then waking up in a room with Jimmy next door. We still don’t know what happened to our other crew member, Marika Werner. Can you tell us what happened to her?”
Ivan waited as Lizbeth relayed the conversation to Mardok who looked less than happy with the new information. He turned to his aide, “I’m sorry, I need to discuss this new information with the Council. We will resume this meeting in 20 certines.” He then stood up and left the room followed by his aide. The guards stayed where they were keeping the captives under close watch.
Mardok entered a secure room at the end of the hall where other members of the Keltan Council were discussing the alien incursion.
Mardok joined the discussion, “So our visitors tell me it wasn’t their ship we found in the cavern. What has our technical team come up with?”
Councillor Temak who lead the scientific team stood up. “I would agree that it’s nothing like any of our technology, and there are no signs that it supported a crew, so we can assume it was unmanned. The metal alloys used are also not ones we are familiar with and several elements detected are very rare in our solar system. We were only able to cut some of the pieces using the black diamond blades we recently developed so it is very tough. In general, the wreckage showed signs of very advanced technology which has us worried, and now you tell us of another species of aliens which have shown up from one of the inner planets? What do the Lúthians have to say about it? They are the ones who watch the skies.”
Mardok looked around the room. “Myker of the Eyson Combine sent a symbiote Ranger team to investigate so they must have some concerns as well. I was not expecting this hybrid creature that they sent along so I am suspicious. They say she was an alien pilot who almost died in the crash of her ship and that he put her back together using symbiote technology. It sounds reckless to me, and I can’t tell how much is true. I don’t know what he is planning, but these events are too coincidental for my taste.”
Temak nodded in agreement. “It may be time to resurrect communications with the Lúthian Council. We need to find out what is going on, and what they know. This alien probe is really strange, it’s almost like it was grown rather than built, so its creators must be very different from us. We need to find out what kind of threat they pose, and we can’t do it without access to the surface and space.”
Councillor Asjket took his turn to speak. “The Lúthian elites have ignored us for years; why would they talk to us now?”
Temak snorted, “They won’t, unless we have something to put on the table that is new and valuable enough to take us seriously. I don’t think we should reveal too much of what we have discovered about the probe yet, but maybe you can interest them in the new meshi forests we discovered in the deep caverns. They need meshi for their bio-organic work with Symbiotes, and they have used up most of what’s available near the surface. The liquid diamonds we are pulling from the new core mines are superior to anything they have as well. In return, however, I want access to their bio-mechanical technology and we want part of any off-planet venture with these Earth people.”
Temak’s comm unit flashed and he took the call; he started to frown. “There is something else. We know the Symbiotes are allowed no free will by their Lúthian creators, which has been an advantage for us. My science team have been observing the aliens, and they tell me the new hybrid still has her free will along with all the strengths of the Symbiote bio-technology. This could change things dramatically and I am not sure how the other Lúthians will feel about such a development. We need to keep an eye on her and Myker’s people."
Mardok looked around, seeing agreement among the other councillors. “Recent events are disturbing; all the more reason to engage with Lúthians again. It’s agreed then, we will open talks with Myker’s people."
Ivan and Jimmy were in the middle of catching up with Lizbeth and the events leading to the new trade negotiations with Earth when Mardok and several aides returned to the room. He turned to Alisna and Lizbeth, “We would like to talk to your Master, Leader Myker, and discuss matters which we feel would be of mutual interest. Please have him contact me using the communications information my aide will provide you. Tell him that it will be worth his time.”
Mardok then stood up and left the room with all of the Keltan personnel leaving the Rangers and Alisna and the crew alone.
Lizbeth looked over at Alisna. “That was unexpected; do you think Mardok is serious about opening talks with Myker?”
Alisna looked pensive. “It is unexpected. We will report the proceedings to him and I am sure he will know what to do.”
One of Mardok’s aides came back into the room, gesturing towards the hallway, “You are free to go. You will be escorted back to the upper levels where your craft is parked. We will arrange for your other crew-mate to be brought to your craft as well. Unfortunately, we could only stabilise her temporarily but your people may be better able to repair her. Please give our regards to your Master.” He smiled in a way that led Jimmy to mutter, “I don’t trust these people; let’s get back to the ship and find help for Marika.”
Myker made sure he was alone and the room was secured against snooping before he entered Mardok’s details into the comm unit. The holographic display stabilised and the two leaders took a moment to assess each other. Mardok was the first to break the silence. “Leader Myker, it is good to finally meet you. It has been far too long since our people had any formal contact. I am Councillor Mardok of the Second Keltan Cooperative.”
Myker smiled diplomatically, “Yes I agree Councillor. Your message said that there were issues of mutual interest you wished to discuss.”
“So there are”, Mardok returned the diplomatic smile. "I felt it was time we talked directly as we have recently recovered the wreckage of an alien probe which crashed into your mining station in the upper quadrant. We are concerned as the origin of the probe may be outside the solar system or from one of the other planets. My people feel it would be best for our people to work together with yours again, as there may be a larger threat looming. I understand you have made contact with people from the third planet, Earth, and are negotiating a trade agreement? I can see some potential advantages in this for our people as well if we can join in the negotiations. We located the missing crew members and returned them along with your Ranger team as a gesture of good will. Unfortunately, the female, Marika, had serious injuries beyond the scope of our abilities to heal. Hopefully, if you repaired the pilot, Lizbeth, perhaps you can do the same for the other Earthling.”
Myker listened carefully, noticing what Mardok wasn’t discussing. He looked across the room from his display, “Thank you Councillor, I believe this meeting is overdue and that it would be beneficial to include you in our discussions with the Earth organisation. I appreciate your care of the missing crew and my team. We will repair the female crew member. As far as trade arrangements, I am told you have new sources of meshi and some interesting finds in the core mines? I am impressed: we didn’t realise you were capable of such complex mining technology."
Mardok smiled at the implied insult, “Yes we have. We have interest in some of your symbiote technology as well and hopefully we can negotiate some sort of equitable trade. I assume you were briefed by your assistant and you understood the implication of Commander Kuznetsov’s revelation?”
Myker nodded in return, “Yes, it appears we have a more serious issue. The probe indicates very sophisticated technology and a race also quite capable of deep space travel. We have no idea whether it originated within the Solar System or outside it. We had no idea until recently that there were any other intelligent technologically advanced races in this Solar System and now we have found one and possibly two. We cannot afford to remain planet-bound, and my people and your people are going to have to put aside our differences and old grievances. If we don’t, we are both in serious danger.”
Mardok looked directly into Myker’s eyes, “I am glad we understand each other. I will do my best to bring my people around and I trust you will convey the seriousness of the situation to yours as well? I am hesitant to bring this to the attention of the Earth people until we have a better understanding of them, would you agree?”
Myker nodded, “I think that would be wise. I plan on removing any of the crew’s memories regarding the probe as a security precaution. We have a lot to learn about them as a species and whether we can work with them. Still,I believe we have a lot to gain by trading with the Earth people so I am hoping we can eventually trust them. Thank you for this call: I appreciate what a significant step this was. You have given me a lot to consider. We will be in touch.”
As the holographic display disappeared, Myker sat quietly in silent contemplation. Suddenly things had gotten a lot more complicated and somehow Lizbeth and potentially Marika were going to play a very important role in events to come.
Unity received news of the destruction of its probe via a last will and testament message sent when the probe self-destructed. It relayed the news of the discovery of another biologic species contaminating a potential resource system. The destruction of its probes was a fairly rare event, so there would be a second mission to investigate the incident and the nature of the contamination.