Byoi Thua MA-H b26-0: 73 days out from Conway City
The frame shift drive made a bone-jarring, but perfectly normal, thud-thud-thud-thud-thud-thud sound that rang throughout the entire hull of the ship as the Asp Explorer completed our seventeenth hyperspace jump of the day. Mya eased Andromeda into the corona of the M-class red dwarf to top off our fuel tank as she activated the advanced discovery scanner.
"Alright... let's see what we've got." Mya said, waiting patiently for the scan to return data. I ran up the star map on my left-hand holographic control board and heard Mya's exasperated and slightly bitter laugh echo from the upper deck of the cockpit. "More snowballs. What a surprise."
"Just what I always wanted." I sighed. "Do you want to skip them?"
"Nah, there's only three of them and they're all fresh. Any new discovery is a good one. All within 1000 light seconds, too. It won't take long." Mya replied, flipping the Asp Explorer onto a new supercruise vector and opening the throttle.
The frame shift drive hummed contentedly, propelling us towards the first icy planetoid just over 600 light seconds away. As the intensity of the light from the red dwarf dropped away as the feeble star receded in our wake, VENUS toned down the polarisation of the canopy, allowing us to pick out increasing detail the star field before us. We had progressed down the Orion Spur far enough that the grand sweep of the Perseus arm behind us and the dense, bright central bar of the galaxy before us almost encompassed our entire plane of view. It was easy to see why the ancient Greeks had called the plane of the galactic disk the Milky Way. When I put this to Mya her response was colourfully ribald.
"Hera must've had amazing tits to have created all this."
"No kidding." I laughed, before an anomalous reading on the local navigational chart attracted my attention. "Hmm. That's strange."
"Check it out." I marked the odd contact on the star map, which appeared to be coming from the surface of the planetoid we were heading to. "Call me space crazy, but it looks like a radio signal."
"That is strange." Mya said, alert and wary. "You're right; it's very weak. Let's see if we can localise the transmission site and get a better reception."
Mya eased back on the throttle, slowing down our approach. We orbited the planet twice before the AI was able to give us an approximate location, two hundred kilometres north of the planet's equator, near the confluence of three ice sheets, which appeared to be migrating together, forming a spider-web of icy ridges several kilometres tall. It was only when Mya had descended the ship to an altitude of fifty kilometres that the interference in the radio signal cleared up to a sufficient extent that I was able to identify the nature of the transmission.
"Mya, it's a distress beacon."
"Okay, give me the coordinates and I'll try and find a landing zone nearby." Mya replied. It was unthinkable that we wouldn't investigate the source of the signal. There was an unwritten code between all explorers that any distress call had to be answered, even though the odds of finding anyone alive were literally astronomical. Improbable didn't mean impossible though, as anyone who played the Bank of Zaonce Lottery would tell you. "Have you detected any other anomalies?"
"I've got a large metallic mass about three klicks west of the signal source."
"Yeah, I think I can see it. We'll give it a flyby on the way to the beacon."
Mya activated the pulse doppler radar to give us detailed topography scans of the ground immediately near the ship and brought Andromeda down to an altitude of just 150 metres. The fine-control vernier thrusters around the ship flared automatically as the flight assistance computer used the return signals from the pulse doppler radar to help Mya maintain a stable attitude and height above the frosty surface below. The ship slowed to less than 100m/s as the anomalous metallic mass started to take shape on the horizon. It had ploughed a furrow in the ice sheet, scattering knife-like flash-frozen crystal shards in its wake for tens of hundreds of metres. Some of the pieces were five metres across and looked lethally sharp. Mya hovered Andromeda just beyond the apex of the furrow so that we could inspect the mangled metal wreckage that had caused it.
"It's a ship alright. Pretty badly beaten up. Difficult to tell what it is." Mya said, easing her vessel a few dozen metres closer and lowing the landing struts. "What do you reckon, Petr?"
"It's too big to be a Type-6, though the overall shape is similar. A Constrictor, maybe? What's left of the nose looks about right for one." I suggested.
"They stopped making Constrictors over seventy years ago, and no-one in their right mind goes exploring in an antique." Mya said while she landed the ship, letting the Asp settle before shutting off the thrusters to save fuel. "It's probably been here for a century. We should suit up and take a look. Meet me in the aft airlock."
I unclipped my acceleration harness and slipped out of my seat, climbing the ladder just behind the entrance hatch to my half of the bridge to get up to my stateroom. After two months of wearing casual clothes, it felt bizarre to get reacquainted with the oppressively tight, compressive fabric of my flight suit, which I had almost treated like a second skin, prior to this journey. Muscle memory allowed me to check all the seals and the state of the life support and thermal regulation systems, the tiny HUD in my tinted visor confirming that everything was in fully working order. I took a quick detour to the engine room to pick up two supplementary oxygen tanks, that would give us up to an additional six hours on the surface. Mya was already waiting in the airlock by the aft loading ramp, suited and helmeted.
"Mya, is that you? It's hard to tell when you've got clothes on." I asked, tongue firmly in cheek. I felt comfortable enough to joke with her now, and I had even begun to flirt with her a little bit, wanting to test the boundaries of our relationship. I was sure that the physical attraction I felt for her was mutual, but I still had no clear idea whether Mya's interest in me went any further than that. Over the last few days she had given me small signs of genuine affection, little caresses to the back of my hand during mealtimes, and the odd squeeze on the shoulder to congratulate me whenever she had been impressed with the way I'd learned a new procedure or been able to predict the order in which she would survey planets and moons in a star system, but I had been cautious not to let them escalate into something we might both regret later. If Mya was frustrated with the slow pace of our courtship - if that's even what it was - she gave no indication of it whatsoever, but I still found it impossible to broach the subject of how she felt about me.
"Touché, kitten." Mya laughed, sealing the inner hatch of the airlock and turning me around by my shoulders to double-check my suit seals and attach the extra air supply to the appropriate valves on the life support hump between my shoulder blades. The HUD flickered to update my life support time up from 30 minutes to 6.3 hours.
"Turn around. Your turn." I instructed, slotting on the life support pack and being careful with where I put my hands as I checked that her seals were secure.
"Have you done an EVA on an ice world before, Petr?" Mya asked, her voice all-business and seemingly oblivious to the intimate closeness of our stance.
"Never." I said, tapping her shoulder twice to indicate that she was good to open the outer hatch of the airlock. Mya swiped the OLED touchscreen with her gloved fingertips and the hatch snapped up into the ceiling. I felt a brief tug as the air rushed out to expand into the vacuum beyond the ship, the gases freezing and scattering the sunlight as they cascaded outwards, forming bright, clear crystals.
"Okay. Things to bear in mind, then..." Mya turned back to face me, even though our polarised visors wouldn't allow us to make eye contact. "Even though the gravity here is only 0.2g, we walk. Don't bunny hop like you would on a low-g rocky planetoid. If you lose your footing on the ice and crack your visor you'll be dead before I can get you back to the ship. Take it slowly and make sure you have one foot firmly planted before you move the other one. Also, keep well clear of any ice fragments that were thrown out by the crash. Ice at this temperature is harder than steel. Any sharp edges will cut your suit open faster than a sushi chef filleting a salmon. So be careful where you put your feet and don't touch anything with your arms or legs. Got it?"
"Yes, Commander." I acknowledged soberly. Her warning was a timely reminder of how a second's sloppiness could have fatal consequences. "Got it."
"Let's go then. Stay close and walk where I walk."
It took us nearly ten minutes to reach the twisted hulk of the Constrictor, even though Mya had landed Andromeda just a hundred metres away from the crashed ship. We had to stop twelve metres away from the ship itself, as Mya couldn't find a safe path through the chaotic maze of crystals that had showered away from the final resting place of the wreckage. The damage to the stricken ship appeared to be entirely due to the crash itself, with no obvious external signs on the hull to indicate what had caused it. We spent half an hour walking around the derelict vessel, visually inspecting as much of it as we could, but were still unable to find any reason why the ship had come down.
"It's odd. The thrusters look fine and I can't see any sign of overload in the FSD emitters." I said, standing just behind Mya's right shoulder.
"Must've been a catastrophic power plant failure. Poor bastards." Mya replied, before pointing to an empty escape pod socket beneath an open hatch on the spine of the ship, just aft of the mangled cockpit. "They must have bailed out in their lifeboat almost at the last second to have ended up so close to the crash site."
"I think I can see the hull registration code." I used the zoom on my HUD to magnify a section of the aft dorsal plate over the main thrusters. "BB61-3J8D-PP9G-TR8R."
"Get VENUS to run it through the Pilots Federation database." Mya turned her back on the Constrictor and led our way back to Andromeda as I tapped the registration code into my wrist terminal and had the ship's AI run the query. "We might as well check out the condition of the lifeboat. You never know."
"Are we flying, or driving?"
"Driving. It's only three k, and I'd rather not risk moving the ship." Mya tapped her own wrist to open a voice channel to the AI. "VENUS, deploy the SRVs."
"Both of them, Commander?" VENUS asked, her artificial voice a paragon of reassuring calmness.
"Acknowledged." the AI said, powering up the SRV hangar.
I watched the first of our two Lyttini SRVs be lowered from the cargo hatch, the half-dozen shock absorbing legs unfolding and extending fully before the vehicle's eight outsized wheels touched the ice sheet. The SRV's computer automatically rolled the rover forward thirty metres, so that the second SRV could also be deployed. Each of the beetle-like Surface Recon Vehicles had a small, one-man bubble cockpit, a cuboid chassis that mounted the six independently articulated wheel arms, a turret-mounted twin plasma pulse cannon, a four tonne cargo rack and pair of gimbal-mounted thruster arms to allow the Lyttini to negotiate large obstacles. Mya took the lead SRV and marked the bearing to the escape pod's distress beacon on our shared data link. I followed a respectful fifty metres behind, driving precisely in her wheel tracks. Even at a modest 17m/s, less than half of the Lyttini's maximum speed, we arrived at the source of the signal in under five minutes. Mya and I parked our SRVs next to each other, barely thirty metres away from the lifeboat. It was clearly of the same vintage as the Constrictor, slightly bigger than one of our SRVs. Modern escape pods were far smaller, more akin to the size of a standard one tonne cargo canister. Using the lights from the SRVs to illuminate the pod better in the gloom, it was obvious that the lifeboat had landed at a far more sedate speed than the Constrictor had. The tiny vessel had left a short indent in the ice sheet barely sixty metres long before coming to rest, thankfully not leaving a trail of caltrop-like ice crystals in its wake. While completely intact and seemingly undamaged, the power emissions from the lifeboat were miniscule - barely a hundred Watts - just about sufficient to keep the beacon transmitting.
"Do you think we'll find anyone, Mya?" I asked, looking across at her as she started to climb out of her SRV.
"Alive, you mean?" Mya replied, and I saw her shake her head. "I doubt it. But we have to look."
I followed in Mya's footsteps as she approached the lifeboat cautiously, using her head torch to help scan the ice sheet for any cracks. As we inched closer to the escape pod, a signal from VENUS told me that the query on the Constrictor's hull code had found a match. The AI flashed up the details on my HUD and I read them out for Mya.
Type: Vega Line Corporation Constrictor Mark I
Owned by: Commander Spencer Cook, Alioth system
Last known contact: 12th December 3197 (presumed destroyed)
"Christ, this thing has been here for nearly 130 years." Mya said as we passed the blunt nose of the pod. She stopped in her tracks abruptly, and I almost walked into the back of her.
"The airlock's open. Both hatches." Mya said. I didn't need to see the apprehension on her face. I could hear it in her voice.
"Oh, that can't be good." I murmured, wishing I had a dart gun or a gauss pistol. "Why would he vent the atmosphere from the pod?"
"I don't know." Mya replied, inching aft from the lifeboat's nose toward the airlock, cautiously backing away from the side of the hull, putting a few more metres of distance between us and the opening. "But we're going to find out. Come on."
It was a nervous few minutes before we were level with the airlock and Mya was able to shine the light from her head torch inside. We were crouched ten metres away from the outer hatch and as Mya turned her head by only a few fractions of a degree, we were able to peer inside the lifeboat. The movement of the light provoked no response from inside the pod and the internal bulkheads were clean and undamaged. Despite having lain on the ice for over a century, the pod was in such good condition that it looked like it could have just been taken off the production line. We waited fifteen minutes for signs of movement from inside the open compartment before Mya turned to me and shrugged.
"No signs of life. Let's take a peek inside." Mya said, standing.
"Are you really sure you want to do that?" I asked, reluctantly walking after her.
"Petr, not even a Thargoid can breathe hard vacuum for a hundred years. And if there was anything in there that considered humans a meal, it's only food source got eaten a hundred and thirty years ago. Come on."
"Okay, I'm right behind you." I told her, with trepidation. My nervousness wasn't helped when the text on my HUD started to dissemble into static when we reached the outer hatch of the airlock. Despite being in vacuum, I could feel a vibration coming from all around me. "Mya, what the hell is that?"
"The reason the ship crashed." Mya took a step inside and gasped in shock when she turned her head to look towards the back of the lifeboat.
"What's wrong?" I asked, rushing to her side in an instant.
The static on my HUD intensified to the point where I was worried that my flight suit was failing. Fortunately, the air supply had a mechanical on-demand backup valve. As long as I kept breathing, the suit would still give me oxygen. I did start to feel a chill in my extremities however, indicating that the heating elements in my suit had abruptly stopped working. When I looked around the interior of the lifeboat, I saw the dual causes of Mya's nervous outburst. The first was the perfectly preserved corpse of Commander Cook. He sat just inside the inner hatch of the airlock on the floor with his back against the wall, with a datapad in his left hand and his RemLok helmet in his right hand. I took a step towards the body and the vibration intensified to the point where I could hear rhythmic chittering in my ears. The source of the apparent sound was at the back of the pod. Illuminated by Mya's head torch the irregular object was dappled with shades of silver, blue and green. A triangular, three tier array of four cylinder-like pods were fused at 120 degree intervals onto an iridescent stem, which was attached to an eerily glowing egg-shaped nodule. The wailing noise from the object gradually grew louder with every second.
"Petr, we have to go. Now. Back to the ship." Mya grabbed at my shoulder, trying to pull me back.
"One second." I said, my eyes drawn back to Commander Cook's body. The grey-haired pilot looked tranquil, as if in a deep sleep. I knelt by the frozen corpse, wondering what had influenced him to open the airlock of his lifeboat and remove his helmet, knowing that the effect would be lethal.
"Now, Petr!" Mya's tone was insistent and fearful. She slipped a hand under my armpit and started to drag me to my feet.
"Okay, I'm coming." I assured her, barely able to hear myself over the now deafening howling coming from the strange object at the rear of the escape pod. An impulse told me to take Commander Cook's datapad. I was just able to snatch it from the corpse's grip before Mya hauled me bodily out of the lifeboat back onto the ice. As soon as we cleared the airlock the cacophony ceased and suit status information on my HUD condensed from the static.
"Petr!" Mya yelled, shaking me angrily by both shoulders. "Nani shite no aho? If I tell you to do something, you fucking well do it! Next time you disobey one of my orders on an EVA I'll leave you behind! Got that?"
"I'm sorry, Commander." I replied formally, mortified that I had upset and disappointed her. "Mya, what was that thing?"
"Not here. I'll explain back on the ship." Mya replied, still coldly furious.
Mya's mood had not improved by the time we had parked our SRVs back in the hangar aboard Andromeda and she had sat me down in the Asp Explorer's cramped galley. Mya prised off her helmet and set it down on the floor, waiting for me to do likewise before speaking. I decided to get my apology in first.
"Mya, I'm sorry. It won't happen again." I told her, swallowing hard as I anticipated the severity of the tirade to come.
"Damn fucking right, it won't." Mya fumed, taking the clips out of her hair to let her long bronze locks fall down across her shoulders and back. "Were you born such a clueless moron, or do you practice?"
"Hey, I said I'm sorry. What more do you want?" I sat back on my bench, offended.
"You really don't know how dangerous that thing was, do you?" Mya asked, appalled by my ignorance.
"Apparently not." I snapped back indignantly. "Forgive me for not being as wise and enlightened as you. Perhaps you'd like to fill me in, or would you prefer to insult me some more?"
"Petr." Mya rubbed her face with both palms, taking several deep breaths to calm herself. "It was a UA. An alien artefact. Of unknown origin. Of unknown capability. It brought down that Constrictor and you saw the effect it had on Commander Cook. If we hadn't gotten out when we did, we'd be sucking vacuum right now."
"An unknown artefact. Jesus." I turned the dead explorer's datapad over in my hands, feeling numb.
"Give me that." Mya beckoned for me to hand her the datapad and I relinquished it to her without hesitation. She immediately removed the power supply and ripped out the wireless antenna unit, along with the solid state memory chip. "And I don't know what possessed you to bring this back with you."
"Something told me to do it. I thought there might be information about where he found the artefact on it, or a message for his family."
"There might be. Probably along with an alien computer virus that could overwrite our AI to get it to kill us in our sleep." Mya said, shaking her head before dumping the dismantled handheld terminal unceremoniously down the chute to the ship's garbage disposal unit. An ugly, metallic grinding noise that set my teeth on edge echoed from the slot in the wall as the datapad was chewed into harmless, millimetre-wide fragments.
"Ah. I never thought about that." I replied, deflated.
"At least you weren't idiotic enough to try and turn it on." Mya sighed. "Petr, I've lost crew before. Due to inexperience, ignorance, recklessness or sheer bloody-minded stupidity. I don't want to lose anyone else, especially not you. Promise that you'll listen to me in future."
"I promise. I'm sorry, Mya." My apology had been sincere before. Now it was abject. I stared at the floor, unable to even think of anything else to say, until Mya lifted up my chin with a strong finger and gave me a kiss on both cheeks.
"Come on, Petr. Let's get out of this godforsaken system." Mya tugged me to my feet and I followed her to the bridge.