Every Planet We Reach Is Dead: Part 1

Joan Lewis sweated despite the cold. Suspended in the Bulb, she didn’t even notice: her focus was elsewhere. A dozen displays surrounded her and others moved into her vision when needed. A stream of information bounced off her retina, a data feed that was half visual and half fed into her mind. The onboard computer, Junko, worked diligently to keep her completely up-to-date while maintaining the life support systems of Salvation. Drugs surged through Joan’s veins with the purpose of overclocking her body as they heightened her reaction times and thought processes. Her hands rushed around like erratic moons, and her facial expressions did the rest. Her feet were locked on the pilot’s platform which rotated and twisted her body to suit her needs. Joan slipped into the connection with Junko, the outside completely forgotten as she reached perfect symbiosis.

Behind her the captain observed. When he needed to, he stepped in to bring up information. His eyes darted back to Joan and a smirk broke out as he watched her mad dance. He acknowledged that her work was far better than his ever was. His body suit was warm, but he has his face free to feel the cold of the Bulb. He could see the void of space just beyond the screens and the frenetic Joan. Endless vacuum. Vega crept into the peripheral burning its blue-white brightness. Sputtering and spurting its gases, waves of radiation washed off Vega in random bursts, as had happened for millennia. At its core it rumbled. Rigel wondered if it would be enough to sustain them.

The time came. Rigel noticed Joan’s movements became longer and more attuned. He imagined the scene outside the ship from far away: two specks closing in like mating bugs, one a luminescent dominator, the other a silent receiver. The ship they were docking with was ancient and its batteries long dormant. A single ring surrounded its engine, immobile before the life-giving connection. The incoming arrival was long and slender, two rings at either end, one contracted and waiting. To the ignorant it would look like the two ships were about to collide, but Rigel knew better. They would elegantly become one if Joan had anything to do with it.

Rigel has watched Joan do this a hundred times in the sims, but it was always impressive, more so now that it was for real. He could make out the other ship, The Indomitable, as they came perpendicular to it. They have come knocking to discover what conquered the unconquerable.

‘How does the airlock look?’ Rigel said to Joan. She didn’t look up, instead shooting off a data byte. He brought up the info.

The Indomitable was intact, no holes or damage. The only noticeable exception was the airlock. Signs of expulsion were evident and pipes drifted lazily out of the opening like an anemone. There were scars where heavy objects would have struck as they were jettisoned. Was it from error or on purpose? Rigel couldn’t see anything that told him one way or the other. If the hulk had been ripped open it was going to make boarding difficult.

‘I can still make it; the lock gates are compatible with ours. I’m going in.’

Rigel threw down the scans.

Joan’s movements sped up and red lights flashed as she went too far one way, then too far the other. On the hull spurts of gas popped seemingly at random. The warning lights ceased and there was a moment of silence.

‘Bingo,’ Joan said right before she made contact.

In the weightlessness of the Bulb it wasn’t an issue but the ship shuddered around them. In the next moment the ship became rigid again, only this time with an additional appendage. They had become one vessel.

‘Easy,’ said Joan. ‘Now comes the really fun part.’

She disengaged from the various wires and inputs and pushed off towards Rigel. She glided towards him, her eyes locked on his and intent on only one thing. Rigel caught her as she came close.

‘We’ve got an hour before the rest of the crew wake up,’ Joan said, a mischievous smile plastered on her face. ‘I’m all worked up.’

Rigel grinned. She grabbed his hand and pushed off back down towards the tunnel and the bunks. He loved it when she took control.

***

The crew woke up, slowly. While Joan came down off the amphetamine and hormonal cocktail, she watched her fellow passengers on a screen in the lower corner of her retina. The crews’ bodies shook as they were reanimated, blood pumping back through empty veins and stirring organs. The worst part was the full-body paraesthesia that accompanied the rejuvenation. Thankfully it only took a few hours before the body was back to full capacity.

Joan stretched, bones cracking for the first time in decades. Rigel lay in bed, his eyes glazed over as he flicked through pre-boarding checks.

‘Come, play a game with me,’ she said. He came back to reality. ‘We’ve got a little time.’

She sat down at the table and brought up a game of chess. The pieces materialised and she chose white. Rigel sauntered over, his skin suit crawling over him. The ship was still cold from the eons.

‘I’ll probably be rusty, even if you give my AI a handicap,’ he said, coughing and easing himself into the seat.

‘It’s not about winning, my dear,’ Joan said, even though a competitive glint was etched into her eyes. They began rapidly before slowing into a rhythm.

‘Do you know how chess first spread?’ Rigel asked his lover. When she rolled her eyes he continued. ‘It spread out of India, then over the centuries it was found in more and more countries. One of the oldest games every invented.’

‘Fascinating story, though I think you should pay more attention to your moves than your anecdotes.’

‘I was just thinking that now we have the chance to take chess to the stars some 2,000 years from its origins.’

‘If there are other species out there, do you think they invented chess independently?’

‘Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised.’

They turned back to the game at hand and Rigel’s brow became more and more furrowed.

‘Ah, you’ve got a response to every move I make,’ said Rigel. ‘Never mind two steps ahead, you’re at least five. One tiny error and it just cascades into defeat from there. For such a mirrored game it becomes asymmetrical so quickly.’

‘No different to any other game, or really anything at all. Think about it. There’s an equal and opposite reaction for everything. Nature adores its arms races. You only have to be ready to step up to the challenge.’

Rigel grunted in amusement.

‘I just need to think outside the box. Beat you with randomness.’

‘I’m plenty used to randomness.’

The AIs they were using threw out endless moves per turn, a thousand calculations a second. Junko watched from a distance, mostly disapproving of all moves chosen by both Rigel and Joan.

‘Have you ever played vanilla chess?’

Joan looked up. ‘No, I haven’t actually. No point.’

‘I have. It’s remarkable the patterns a computer chooses over a human. For one, humans prefer repetition, familiarity. But it’s all a simulation. It’s the same principle as docking this ship, just a tad more complicated in the types of calculations that an AI or Junko throws up. That right, Junk?’

The lights dim in response.

‘Such a quiet machine. Sometimes I wonder what Junk thinks about in the downtime.’

‘What downtime? Me, I wonder if the AI can distinguish between a game and real life, or if both have equal weighting.’

‘Either way, they offer us the best possible result. We just have the courage to take it. Check.’

‘Such the inspiration, Rigel. But we’re all pieces in the larger game. Us in particular. Moved to the farthest reaches of known space on some vague hope that there’ll be something at the end of it for us.’

‘Sometimes I don’t mind being manipulated. We’ve got the chance to change the future after all.’ He gave a half-hearted chuckle.

‘You know as well as I do that the only reason we’re here is that it’s better than home. And that it gives the only people worth a shit a slight chance of a better life.’

‘Hey, I think you’re worth a shit. That’s why I brought you with me.’

‘Don’t kid yourself, I came because you’re useless without me.’

He laughed at that.

‘Checkmate,’ Joan said, leaning back with a satisfied smirk.

‘Well, fuck me.’

‘Is that request?’

‘What?’

‘To fuck you,’ she said as she launched herself at him again,

***

The bright, fluorescent light of Junko’s airlock painted everyone in unnatural shades. Lin Pei stepped onto her suit printer before the others and froze. Her lungs were still pumping back to life, her joints ached, and the cold was taking a long time to her body. After decades in suspended animation, wrapped tighter than a newborn baby, she was about to be covered up again. She had barely had time to breathe before being sent out on mission.

The printer coil surrounded Lin from the boots up, producing a warm synthetic material that slowly covered her skin. She didn’t flinch. It was a similar consistency to body paint, but provided a vitality-giving inner layer for their spacesuits. The machine finished with Lin first and she stepped back to receive the exosuit. Junko was soft in her touch as she slottd and clipped the suit around Lin’s limbs and torso. It was over in thirty seconds. Lin reached into the collar, retrieved the earpiece and slipped it in.

‘You’re live, Lin,’ Joan said into her microphone. She had been watching this all through her various screens. As the others suited up, Joan read all their vitals the nanotech of the inner layer of their suits was feeding her. She checked them off one by one. Cams, audio, heartbeats – they were all available to her instantaneously, placed on to her heads-up display by Junko.

We ready to do this?

Rigel’s voice cut in. He was part of the forward team. It was him, Lin and the twins, Hotham and Jay. Like a good leader he walked between them and checked their suits. He straightened up and faced the other three.

–Alright crew, this it. It’s been a long time coming but, heck, it just feels like we woke up from a particularly good sleep. No worries. I hope you’ve all gone over our training procedures. We’re entering a hulk, no atmosphere, so we take it easy until we can boot her.

As Rigel spoke, Joan flicked cameras to the Major, who had retreated to her station immediately after waking. Joan brought the screen closer. More machine than person, the Major was connected to her personal hub, lost in her own objectives. Behind her the massive 3D printer constructed a series of mechanical golems, its materialisers working back and forth in rapid, measured strikes. Joan already tried to dig into the Major’s past and reasons for being here, but it was dead zone after dead zone as she trawled through the feed. The woman was untouchable, a complete ghost. As she mused on this, a voice called into her ear.

–Joan?

She switched her camera feed back to the airlock.

‘Yes, captain?’

–Nodding off up there? I need you alert. I know you’re good but you’re not do-it-in-your-sleep good.

Someone laughed.

‘Even if I were out cold, I’d still do a better job than you, sir.’

He looked directly at the cam and flashed a thumbs up.

–Right, are we ready to do this? Hotham, Jay, take point. I’ll follow and Lin, you’re last. Joan, hit it when you’re ready.

The boarding party moved into formation, sleek suits ready for their first run, bulky equipment in strength-enhanced arms. Joan hit the airlock release.

***

Lin watched her compatriots disappear into the yawning dark ahead of her, the separation of life and death. She stepped in behind them automatically, not wanting to but because she had to. That was what she was paid to do. She’d signed the contract to go boldly where no person had been before. Or at least to discover why those that had gone before never came.

Her headlamps came on automatically as she crossed into the lifeless hulk. The light captured her crewmates before she turned to look around. It looked like the evil twin of Salvation, a leviathan with the life crushed out of it. They crossed into the living area.

It was a similar space to their own rec space, but smaller. The tech was older, less sophisticated. They could only dock because all ships were made retroactive. Lin veered slightly, head going light. She shook it off quickly, forcing a release of hormones to focus. Rigel’s voice suddenly came over the comms.

Looks like everything is mostly intact. Joan, are you receiving vid? Anything loose will have gone to the suck, but I don’t think the control panels are damaged. Hotham, can you get her started?

Lin took it all on board and wandered through the ship. It was like being under water, like training all those years ago. Wires waved at her as she moved slowly through, her grav boots operating in time with her movements.

OK Jay, close down the hatch. Joan, we’ve done a sweep and there doesn’t appear to be any hull breaches. We’re closing the doors and going to boot her.

Lin snapped out of her reveries and looked around. She found herself in the cryo-chamber. No doubt these versions were wildly out of date, and the discomfort Lin had felt when she first woke up would be nothing compared to what it was like in the past. A dull thrum started beneath the static and her breathing. Vibrations started to travel up her leg with each step. She walked past each chamber, the glass exteriors covered in ice that hadn’t melted in centuries. It had frozen instantaneously as soon as the hull breach occurred. Lin came to the last one just as the lights turned on and she wiped her gloved hand across the ice.

Something moved. Lin blinked, looked again. The chamber hummed and jived, lighting up along the sides. And inside. Something moved again. Lin’s eyes went wide but she took a quick step back as the door of the chamber in front of her burst open, whatever gases were trapped inside escaping and freezing in mid-air.

A body fell out, or more precisely rolled out, performing somersaults on exit. Lin stared at the man who writhed in front of her. Suspended in mid-air, his body wriggled in a ball. Lin’s fingers twitched at her side. She almost took another step back, almost ran. Instead she rushed at the man as fast as her grav boots allowed, oxygenator in hand.

–GET IN HERE

She screamed into her vox. Her body took over from her mind. She reached for the man and tried to pull his limbs apart so she could wrestle the oxygenator on to his face. The power might have turned on but the air was going to take a little while, if there even was air left in the throttled ship. Lights flickered and the scene in front of Lin was like a nightmare. She forced her suited arm between the man’s limbs and finally managed to get the device over his mouth. As she did, his eyes shot open.

***

‘Just to be clear: you have no memory of what happened?’

Rigel stood across from the man they rescued from The Indomitable. Thanks to the onboard data files they determined that he was one Ari Walcot. He sat on a stripped-down bed. The medbay glowed with cleanliness. Walcot’s eyes focused on the floor and his hands mashed together, fingers weaving in and out of each other. He didn’t answer and Rigel ground his teeth.

Rigel had been quite reserved and let the new arrival recuperate, but it had been hours since they rescued him from the hulk, which was still attached precariously to the Salvation. The engineers were going back and forth as they checked the systems and data. That part of their mission was working as it should. There was damage and nothing obviously wrong. The main problem Rigel had was the living corpse back from the dead.

‘Let me explain this to you, again. We – and I mean humanity – lost contact with you, The Indomitable, not long after your first arrival in the system. It’s been a long time.’ He stops himself momentarily. That was an understatement. ‘I would appreciate if you told me what you can remember.’

Walcot looked up, straight into Rigel’s eyes.

‘Nothing. Absolutely nothing, except who I am, and even that’s vague. I’ve the barest memories of before I even signed up. I…’ He choked. It was either emotions or his vocal muscles that caught him.

Rigel grunted. He had been a kid when The Indomitable went quiet. It was the last outpost. Humanity had waited centuries, generations, waiting for The Indomitable to reach the Vega system. They’d learned about every expedition at school, though not so much detail as knowing about each member of each crew. The Vega expedition had been the last one not yet established when Rigel came of age.

The excitement was huge. He remembered the day at school, an address from the President and everything. But it was all for nothing in the end. It took years for the communications to come back to Earth, and they started off positive. But the government censored the last desperate may day calls. The only thing people could think about was the fact that while they had celebrated the arrival of the crew, that same crew had already been dead for years.

A door slid open with a hiss and Lin walked in. Her eyes traced over charts as the patient’s results rolled past her retinas.

‘He appears healthy, though over-exposed to the cryosleep, obviously. No long term effects. But the memory loss can happen, quite often actually. Especially in the case of trauma.’

Rigel nodded and his fingers squeezed his lips as he thought.

‘I imagine losing all the rest of your crew would be quite traumatic. Can you bring up his ship records?’

Lin’s eyes twitched.

‘Here you are. As you know, his name is Ari Walcot. He was brought along to document the settlement of the Vega system.

‘You’re a journalist?’ said Rigel.

Walcot smiled uneasily and rubbed the back of his head. ‘If you say so.’

‘Great, so now not only do I have an extra body on my hands, but he’s useless too.’ Rigel threw rows his hands up in the air and kicked the nearest bed.

A voice chirped up in his ear.

–Captain. You’re needed in the Bulb. Now.

What is it Joan?’

–I think I know what happened here.

***

Vega bulged at the equator. Parallel to the equator the light was a duller blue-white than at the poles. Junko’s many eyes focused on this point. An object had appeared in Vega’s orbit.

Joan stared down the barrel of an optic station. She flipped between spectrums and checked the object in each. It appeared to her as a small black smudge. A freckle against the mighty sun.

‘It’s a ship?’

‘It’s something technological. It’s far too small for a planet, and the orbit is wrong anyway.’ Joan pulled away from the optics and looked straight at Rigel.

‘So you’re saying, potentially, that The Indomitable ran into aliens – again, potentially – and we’ve come 25 light years to meet the same fate?’

‘Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t get any energy readings from it. It appears dormant.’

‘Have you checked any comms from Earth or the other expedition systems?

‘It’s still transferring, it’s a lot of data for Junko to analyse on top of immediate duties.’

‘Yeah, I know that, I just want to make sure if this is going to be a first contact situation, or if we’ve already been beaten to it. In the mean time, rack up some probes to send out for investigation. Keep quiet, no radio, reduce our radiation, and don’t tell any–’

–Captain. I assume you’ve spotted the anomaly.

The Major. Her voice crackled through the all-purpose frequency, the robotic shifts of her mechanized voice box magnified through the vox.

‘Indeed we have. We’re coming up with a plan of action now. It appears quiet for now.’

–I’m already putting together a drone team for reconnaissance. I suggest you work through the data banks of The Indomitable more efficiently.

With a click the Major signed off. Rigel’s jaw clenched.

‘Ok so now we have a clue as to why the Major was signed up for this mission. Joan, I want you to keep working on data from The Indomitable and to keep scanning the system for clues. Get those probes out quickly. I’m going back to talk to our guest.’

***

One, two, three probes launched by Junko, pacifist torpedoes hunting for knowledge. They crossed the gap between sentient ship and anomaly quickly, dodging debris and maintaining formation. They relayed imagery back to Junko, who fed it on to the crew.

As they already knew, the anomaly was massive. A large sphere maybe the size of a small moon. Its skin was layered with crevices and mountains. Spires reached up off its surface, ugly spikes and deformities. There were valleys and bunkers as well, indented facades across the whole thing. The drones split up.

They zoomed across the horizons and the scanners slowly brought the anomaly into a 3D rendition in Junko’s database. In the background Vega burned and its flames lapped at edges of the system. The haziness diffused the light to a romantic glow. But there was no light from the anomaly. It orbited in silence.