The Outer Colonies – A SciFi short story by William DeSouza

Posted: October 23, 2012 in Books, Written Works by William DeSouza
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The Outer Colonies – by William DeSouza ©2012

Draylan Kir leaned back on the small bar chair raising its two front legs off the polished floor. That was a mistake as the ten plus drinks he’d just finished this morning affected his ability to balance himself, and the chair.

The slightly overweight ninety-seven kilo Draylan, the chair and his current glass of amber coloured alcohol went crashing to the floor. Gravity had a way of doing that from time to time. The small but boisterous crowd at the table lost themselves in a roar of laughter.

Draylan however was indignant, “Son of a bitch, I wasn’t finished my drink yet. Bar-keep! What kind of establishment are you running here?!?! These chairs are defective!” The words were slightly slurred but he was happy with the message.

“Draylan my friend, if you’re not careful, they’ll cut you off,” laughed an equally intoxicated Murdock Jokinen, his thick Finnish accent slurred by an equal number of drinks.

Murdock reached over and clasp arms with the red faced Draylan, first steadying him, then pulling him up. Draylan checked the chair for damage, then finding none, quickly repositioned it between his buttocks and the ground – grumbling the whole time to anyone that would listen.

It was noon and the tavern was thick with people having a quick meal and a good time. Music of some kind played loudly in the background through hidden speakers, causing patrons to shout even louder to be over heard in the din. Two bar tending bots dispensed various coloured and locally fermented beverages into mugs, sometimes spilling the alcohol as servers and customers grabbed trays to pass around.

“Sergeant Jokinen, never poke fun at your seniors,” said Draylan after composing himself.

“Sergeant Kir, you my friend are only my senior in age, not in rank.”

The two men, both dressed in their garrison uniforms, broke out with a gut wrenching belly laugh.

Their camouflage tunics were open down to their waists and secured only by the wide unit belt bearing the insignia of the Marine Recon Unit. Stains of different colours could be seen on their shirt collar, almost blending in with the camouflage pattern of the uniform. The dark green undershirts they both wore were sweat stained as well. Their tan coloured pants, once pressed and creased, were now stained and wrinkled. Kir had one leg bloused at the top of his boot while the other hung loose. Both men were missing several unit insignia and the odd button on their uniforms, but nether cared. It’s not like either one was going to be inspected at any time soon.

Humanity has used military men and women to fight against itself in countless battles and wars throughout its history. From the Assyrian Conquest of Syria in 853 BC, the Wars of the Roses in 1461, the Hundred Days wars, American Civil War in 1862, right up to World War Two in the 1940’s and the Third Global Conflict in 2036. We have fought each other between planets and colony worlds. Our history is one of conflict that spans generation after generation.

In our colorful and violent history, we have also known peace, although it was once said that attaining peace was a human folly. Normally found in the period between wars and conflict, peace was elusive and fleeting at best. This time was different however.

This peace has lasted almost four hundred years, the longest span of zero conflict in human history. Humanity has used this period of prosperity to explore the mind, medicine, physics and the stars. We have stepped out of the shadow of our violent past, choosing instead to nourish the mind. Humanity has finally learned to play nice with itself.

With such an abundance of brotherly love around the galaxy, there has hardly been a need for a military. Sure, humanity still has a few criminals and bad guys. After all, it’s only been four hundred years, and human nature can’t adapt that quickly. However these lawbreakers have been handled nicely by the local Constabulary.

What is left of a military was spread out across the settled colonial worlds and used more for rounding up drunken smugglers that ply the space lanes and marching in colourful parades. Their hardware consisted of a few transport ships held together by a limited supply of spare parts. Never mind anything resembling a fleet. Sure, they had small arms, but a not many and only a short supply of ammunition that was closely guarded.

“Sergeant Jokinen, Sergeant Kir, I’m sorry to interrupt, but your presence is wanted in the garrison headquarters.”

Jokinen’s looked startled, and almost spilled the ale he was quickly finishing off. Kir was equally surprised by the interruption, not really paying attention to who was speaking and in his current state, not sure that someone was even there.

Recovering slowly, Kir finally spotted a very young corporal standing at attention. “Who the bloody hell are you?”

“Corporal Minsk, Sergeant,” snapped the corporal. “I was sent here to find the two of you and escort you back to the commandant. I believe he said something about using irons if I had to.” Minsk voice crackled when he spoke.

Kir spoke first, “What the crap does our leader want of us?” he belched loudly, “Tell him that the good Sergeant,” he pointed, “and I are….indisposed and once we sober up, we’ll be happy to report.”

Jokinen’s and Kir both looked very pleased with themselves as they diverted their attention back to their friends and their drinks.

“Sorry Sergeants’, I can’t do that. You’ll have to come with me now please.”

“Look little boy, go play solder someplace else. We’re busy.”

“Sergeant, I really do not want to use force if I don’t have to.” Minsk said with only a hint of trepidation.

Jokinen spoke up, “For the love of…. You are really starting to piss me off Corporal. What army are you going to use to force us to come with you,” he laughed.

The young corporal waved at four beefy military police officers waiting at the door to step forward into the light. Each one armed with a side arm, stun stick and muscles powerful enough to crush led.

“Oh,” mumbled Kir. “Well, he did say please Jokinen. Maybe we should go with the lad.”

Sighing, Jokinen agreed, “Right, let’s not keep the commandant waiting young Corporal.

The three men left the tavern, first Kir, then Jokinen followed by the corporal and four military police. A fifth officer was waiting at the ground transport. It was dark outside, the sun not yet raised above the horizon. The air was thick however as the humidity was near eighty five percent. They climbed aboard and drove off toward the base.

The drive was just short of two hours on the dust covered back roads.  While the command compound was not very far from the bar, the route they had to take due to construction on the main boulevard brought the transport around the rear of the training area. As for the two drunken sergeants, it felt as if they were driving for days.

“My friend, you have to stop me the next time I suggest drinking that slop. It gives you a quick buzz but stop drinking for a bit and my head pounds,” Kir held his head between his knees.

“I think the driver hit every hole in the road, including some that he must have dug out just for this trip.”

The two ton transport squeaked to a halt, adding to the sergeants’ discomfort.

”Jokinen, Kir, get in here right away. You two can sober up later,” shouted Commandant Bugatti from the open door to his office.

The Commandant stood with hands on hips and a scowl on his face. He was shorter than the two sergeants but could impose a sense command not seen in ranking officers for some time. His hair was cut short to fine stubble and his face clean shaven.

The air was still thick and the sun still obscured by the mountains in the distance and then by broad storm clouds hovering above the high peaks. It was much earlier than either sergeant realized but very little was happening on the base. There was hardly anyone even living or working on the main base these days. A few communication technicians, maintenance persona, support officersl and of course the military police detachment, of which Kir and Jokinen’s were more than a bit acquainted with.

“Yes Sir,” replied Jokinen as he rolled himself off the back of the transport. “Right away Sir.”

The sergeants buttoned up their tunics and tried to straighten themselves up a bit before walking into the commandants’ office, followed closely behind by Corporal Minsk.

“You two are in a sorry state,” began the commandant.  “I can’t blame you though. It’s not like this is a real military unit – not in the old sense of the word,” Bugatti sat on one corner of his desk. “Have a seat you two.”

“Thank you sir,” they said in unison as they sat down in the only other chairs in the office.

Turning to the corporal, still standing at attention, Bugatti said, “Thank you corporal, that’ll be all.”

Minsk saluted, gave a snappy parade square turn and marched off.

“You’ll have to forgive our young corporal gentlemen. He’s new and surprisingly idealistic. Now I won’t offer you a drink because you’ve had enough and I need you both very sober for this mission.”

Kir and Jokinen glanced at each other, Kir speaking first, “What exactly is this mission sir?”

“Just over two years ago the outermost rim colony set up on a planet in the Golla System. The system is at the very edge of the galactic border. The only thing beyond that is a great big empty. The planet, Golla Two, was by all accounts ideal for Humans with a temperate zone similar to Earth, and no dangerous wildlife or indigenous life that was hostile to humans. Six hundred and seventy two colonists, mostly miners and their families set up shop. They began an ore extraction and processing facility there. Everything was fine, cargo ships stopped by every three months and colony directorate had regular monthly contact with them. five months ago we lost all contact. Maybe I’ll have that drink instead. You two want coffee?”

Bugatti paused, pouring himself a tall drink and the sergeants a large mug of coffee.

He continued, “Four months ago we lost contact with CurtisFalls. Three months ago we lost contact with the colony on Aegis Three, and two months ago Sonora. Are you two getting the picture?”

Jokinen stood and walked over to the large screen on the far wall. He typed in some commands on the consol a large galactic map focused on the screen. He typed in the colonies Bugatti mentioned and tightened the focus to show only those. Behind him, Kir gasped in shock.

Each of the planets highlighted, when strung together, formed an almost straight line that started at Golla Two and ended with Sonora. The planets glowed red and with the white line running through them looked like a necklace being strung with semi precious gems. The time interval between each loss of comm was between forty and forty five days. On each of the planets there was a yellow question mark, a simple punctuation on five planets indicating a simple question – ‘what happened?’

Bugatti broke the silence, “I think you both see why Central Command is just a little concerned about the loss of comm’s. The…” he paused, “…situation gets stranger gentlemen. The obvious next step was taken as we sent out a ship to find out what was going on. Colony Directorate tapped the merchant barge Gaskin to follow up on their next regular run. The Gaskin set out for Golla Two within two standard weeks after we lost contact. What it found, and did not find, is what makes this so odd and a top priority. ”

“Look Commandant, you’re starting to dance around something and it’s not getting clearer. What did the cargo ship find?”

“They found the planet, its buildings and settlement, even the comm system fully intact. It did not find the colonists.” Bugatti blurted it out as if the words were stuck in his throat and he needed to catch his breath.

‘What?” exclaimed Kir and Jokinen in unison.

Jokinen followed up the thought, “What – no people at all?

“No people, no bodies, no bones, no sign of any life what so ever. And there’s more, not even the local native species of animals. There was no sign of any life and nothing from solar flares, radiation, natural or human catastrophe.  Nothing was found and no sign in any of the colony administration or personal logs to explain what happened. The logs just ended one day as if everything was fine. Even the colony ship was still docked at the transfer station.” Bugatti pored and took another drink.

“So what do you want us to do?” asked Jokinen with some trepidation.

“I’m not sure what I want you to do; I never signed up for this shit. In the fifteen years I’ve been in the military, the most difficult decision I’ve had to make is what uniform to wear. Life was supposed to be easy, we’re not at war, we barely have any crime at all outside of a few drunks or the odd pirate.” he glanced at the two sergeants who quickly turned away.

“I think he means us,” Kir mumbled to Jokinen. “At least the drunk part.”

“Right then… at this point I need the two most experienced people we have to head out to the targeted planets and find out what you can. Eyes on the ground and all that. It’s up to us to figure it out since we’re the closest jump off point. Gather what intel you can then beeline it to Preston’s Moon, the next colony in line with the others. If the timeline is steady, they will experience a loss of comm in twenty eight standard days. Evacuate them if you have to. You’ll have full authority to do whatever it takes to solve this mystery.”

As if to emphasize the urgency, he pointed to the large screen on the wall, widening the field of view.

“I think this will point out why headquarters has a larger than usual bug up their ass for answers.”

The magnification of the galactic map drew back to include dozens of systems. The solid white line changed to a dotted hash line and continued superimposed through some minor and then major population systems and near the end of the string was a glowing sun with a minor looking blue planet, Earth.

“I hate to break it to you Commandant, but what are we supposed to do? Head out in a scout ship and ask for information along the way – have you seen our colonies?” Kir was sarcastic but had a point. “All we have are lightly armed scout ships. What if we come up against something bigger? ”

“You run like mad and get word back to Central Command. I have a very bad feeling about this. Not knowing what happened to all those people is starting to scare the crap out of me. Command is pulling every cruiser, missile carrier and battleship out of moth balls. We’re using the cover that this is an administration exercise, trying to keep the civvies calm. Oh, and one more thing before you go…. From what we can gather using remote link up to the computer, the colonies database has been accessed – after the loss of comm. It beats me who, or what did it and why. It’s been the same for each of the planets.”

“And I see that you waited to the end to break the best news to us,” mumbled Jokinen.

Kir and Jokinen left the meeting in silence and fully sober. Outside the building the streets were empty and the sky just as dark as when they arrived, the only illumination coming from the lights lining the narrow road. Looking off toward the distant sky a faint sliver of light was beginning to crest the horizon, but not enough to brighten the mood of the two sergeants.

They glanced quickly at each other, the same morbid thoughts swirling through their pounding and hung over heads. There wasn’t much for either of them to say at this point as nether of them had any clue as to how they should be feeling.

They joined the armed forces decades ago with visions of glory and adventure and quickly became jaded. Peace had a way of sapping the life out of military personal very quickly and parade square drill was not giving them the adventure rush they sought.

They had both seen action on a number of covert ops on far off planets very early in their careers, but that was against the odd criminal gang or pirate. Back in the day, this type of mission would have been welcomed – then.

Now, all they wanted to do was drink to excess and get paid for it. Neither Kir nor Jokinen knew when they ‘changed’, but they both agreed, in silence anyway, that they had. Today, at this point in there lives; this was not a welcomed mission.

It took a full day and a half, but they had the only interstellar shout ship left on the base readied for launch. Fully automated, the ship could be operated by the two and have enough cargo space to evacuate up to two hundred people. Three hundred soles could be packed into the hold if they stripped it down with no provisions or comforts. A disturbingly small amount if they had to run with evacuees’.

The only armaments on the ship was two exterior missile tubes with a rotating auto loader and six mark eight anti ship missiles a-side. They also had an outdated laser pack firing four high powered lasers. These were outdated, the term ‘high powered’ having lost its context over the years. Even the shout ship armor could withstand a barrage of laser fire from similar platforms.

Just as the ground crew connected the fuel lines to the scout ship for the final act before launch, Kir exited the control building, running into Jokinen carrying a large kit bag.

“I hope you have enough toilet paper in that sack of yours,” Kir teased. “You’d think that in millions of years of Human evolution, we’d be rid of the need to even use the stuff.”

“I’ll have you know that the outer rim is not known for its comfort in that department. I have enough for both of us to last six months.”

“Let’s hope it’s not going to take that long to sort this out. I guess at this point it’s too late to just turn and run?” Kir only half joked, a sad looking grin showing he was still not ready for the mission.

“Look, it won’t be that bad. We go take a look, head to the next colony in line, pass on any warnings and get the hell out. We’ll run as far as we can as fast as we can. A shuttle full of supplies and fuel can take us a long way if need be.”

“I guess you’re right. Well then, what are we waiting on? Let’s get the show on the road,” Kir’s grin widened.

The launch was uneventful as the ship left the system and went into hyper, its Faster-Than-Light main motors kicking in just past the outer planet in the four planet system. Inertial compensators protected the crew form the massive gravitational forces exerted in acceleration and deceleration maneuvers. That was the easy part of space flight though. FTL flight is always hazardous. You were both in and out of the universe, a kind of void where you didn’t exist. The danger was mitigated by the technology and a strict adherence to the laws of physics as they are now known; but it was by far the most perilous activity humans did. Without instruments, Kir and Jokinen would never have known they were travelling faster than light.

The ship was not without its creature comforts. A small space for a gym, separate sleeping quarters with washing facilities and a well equipped galley and games room made the one month trip tolerable. The most difficult part was the lack of alcohol.

The Commandant took the precaution of having the ship and personal kit searched before launch and neither Kir nor Jokinen was aware that the booze had been removed. The first week of the trip was spent cursing Commandant Bugatti.

After that, the two sergeants made due with more mundane pursuits. That was until they neared the Golla planetary system.

Kir sat at helm controls and entered the command to drop out of FTL five billion kilometers from Golla Two. That left them just outside of the Golla planetary system and gave them time to vector in on the planet while bleeding off speed.

“Launching probe.”

“How long for intercept?” Kir asked as he secured the helm station, switching over to auto-pilot.

“Just over twenty eight hours at this speed. We should begin to get telemetry around the fifteen hour mark.”

Kir rolled his eyes, “Better get some sleep then. I’ll be in my cabin if you wake before me. Don’t let me miss the party.” Both men rose and after making sure all bridge alarms were set, retired to their respective cabins.

‘ALERT, ALERT, ALL BRIDGE CREW TO STATIONS. TELEMETRY DATA RECEIVING WITH HIGH PRIORITY TAG. ALERT, ALERT.’ The computer voice billowed throughout the ship. It was an unmistakable intrusion on ones thoughts and both sergeants awoke with a resigned sigh.

Jokinen was first onto the bridge, followed within seconds by Kir. Jokinen took up his place at the engineering station and reconfigured the terminal to read the telemetry from the survey probe. His eyes widened as he read the data downloaded from the probe they launched.

“Son of a bitch!” he exclaimed. “Bugatti wasn’t kidding when he said there was no sign of any human life. There is nothing left and not a single trace of DNA is present,” he paused, “It’s as if all life has been removed.”

“Removed? Removed how?” questioned Kir.

“Don’t ask me, I can’t explain it. I checked the entire planet after the probe made a full rotation and – nothing. No human DNA detected at any level. No DNA! I can’t say it any simpler,” he began to show the frustration in his voice as he continued to read the data scrolling down the screen. Human, animal, plant, all registered DNA life wiped from existence.

Kir, sitting at the secondary navigation station, shouted, “Jokinen! Grab the helm, turn us around – Now!”

Taken by surprise, Jokinen replied, “What the hell are you going on about?”

“Pull up the long range sensor map.”

Jokinen keyed in the command and a sensor map of the system enlarged on his screen, replacing the previous life form data. He quickly realized why Kir had freaked as a red icon slowly came into view from the far side of the system.

Hidden from view by the light of the sun, they only saw ‘it’ as the distance narrowed and the small ships sensors made sense of the data. Magnetic fields from the local sun masked much of the planet and surrounding space to sensors, but Jokinen isolated the glowing icon and magnified it.

As he did his mouth dropped open. The ship, if you can call it that, was as large as a small moon. The cylinder shape vessel measured over two kilometers long and at least a kilometer in diameter. The mass indicator on the screens was off the scale and to say that it was big would have been the understatement of the century.

Jokinen couldn’t make out any details, but the limited amount he could see caused him to race for the navigation and helm control panel with Kir.

A new heading was input and Kir turned the ship around and fired the FTL motors, putting them on a trajectory for what would have been their second plotted navigation point.

As the ship entered FTL the two men leaned back in their seats and stared at each other without a word, or breath, between the two. Both men not even realizing they were holding their breaths.

“Ok, I am officially freaked out,” exclaimed Jokinen.

“You and me both my friend. I could brain Bugatti for confiscating our stash. The mass of that thing was – well, it was just off the charts!”

“Right, set course for CurtisFalls. I’ll load a message packet and fire it off to Command,” Jokinen stood, his legs still a bit wobbly, and walked to the communication station.

Kir, rubbing the back of his head, had a thought, “Jokinen, I’m laying down a spread of sensor beacons. I want some warning if that thing heads out this way. If we scatter the beacons along this line…,” he drew out a sweeping pattern two hundred AU wide. “We may get lucky.”

Jokinen studied the pattern before responding, “Sounds like it should work but I hope that ship, or whatever it is, stays right where it is. Let’s face it; we have nothing in our arsenal that could go up against it.”

One week seemed like one year for the two senior sergeants as they contemplated life the universe and their next move. There was nothing routine about this current leg of the mission and nether sergeant spoke for some time. Their thoughts wrapped up in the past and present with little consideration of a future.

Whatever that ship was, whoever crewed it, was so foreign to the Human race that neither could contemplate a future. There was no reference point to begin.

CurtisFalls was slowly moving closer to their tiny ship on the plot when the proximity alarm sounded.

“Shit! What the hell is that?” screamed Kir – woken from a light sleep.

“Relax, you’ll pull something you may need later. It’s just the proximity alarm. We’re approaching CurtisFalls. I’ll bring us in on a wide approach. I want to know if any other surprises are there for us.”

“Good thinking, but my concern right now is what our plan is for staying alive.”

Jokinen only glanced up quickly to agree with Kir’s immediate priority. His focus was on the long range sensors. CurtisFalls was a single planetary system that was resplendent with the raw materials used the construction of composite building materials. The planet itself was an unusual rocky core giant, nearly twice the diameter of Jupiter. A heavy gravity planet that was populated by the hardest of miners and explorers, it orbited its sun at one point five AU.

Jokinen asked, “What was the population of Curtis?”

“Just over three thousand miners and scientists at last count.”

“Based on this scan, it’s now zero. I’ve run the scan on two orbits and get the same result each time.”

Kir leaned back in the chair, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply, “This is not starting off to be a good trip. Look if this pattern holds up, we’re going to find the same issue at Aegis Three and Sonora. Why not head to Preston’s Moon right away. We’re running out of time as it is.”

“I like the way you think, mostly because I was having the same thoughts. The travel time to Preston from here is going to be at least a week and a half and that only gives us five days to evaluate the situation – if that.”

“Right then, setting new course for Preston’s Moon and uploading our findings in another message packet.”

Kir launched the message packet as soon as it was ready. The FTL missile fired out of the launch bay using thrusters and once it reached a safe distance from the ship, fired up the main drive motors and entered the void on course to Central Command. The missile would take at least two weeks before it entered the main shipping lanes then have to drop out of FTL to finish its journey on thrusters – adding another week.

Kir looked over at Jokinen, you know it’ll be just over three weeks before it reaches Command and some pin-head decodes it and passes the info to higher. By then…”

“…by then this may all be over and too late for them to react and save our butts,´ Jokinen finished Kir’s sentence.

The first two days were traveled in silence as basic maintenance along with double checking supplies and equipment consumed much of their time. Nether sergeant had much to say outside of polite nods and the odd word or two at the end of a shift cycle.

Something was bothering Kir however, and it was gnawing at him, eating away at that self assured outer shell he liked to project. He hated it when he wasn’t able to be in total control of his thoughts and right now he felt that as each second passed he was being taken over by a very disturbing set of thoughts.

“Jokinen,” called Kir on the intercom. “Jokinen, come up to the bridge,” he called again.

“What is it Kir, I’ve got my hand full right now swapping out the number four scrubber.”

“I’ll come down there then. Wait one.”

A couple of minutes later Kir opened the outer hatch cover on the O2 supply cupboard to find Jokinen ankle deep in lubricating oil, his coveralls filthy and stained.

“What the hell happened here?!” Kir shouted, both shocked and amused at the same time.

“What do you think happened?! This blasted ship is falling apart on us when we need it the most. The hydraulic pump blew and showered the scrubbers with oil. Why in the hell are we even still using hydraulic systems on a space faring vesicle?  Surly we should have progressed past the need for this twentieth century junk!” Jokinen cursed as he resealed the final scrubber and closed the access panel.

“What did you want anyway?”

“I’ve been thinking…”

“You know we’ve talked about that.”

“Look, I’m serious. Something’s been nagging at me since we spotted that ship. It’s the location.”

“What? You mean its orbit about the sun?”

Kir paused, shaking his head, “No, not that. It’s the system we found it in. We came out of FTL at Golla Two, found that ship, then bee-lined it for Curtis Falls. What did we find there?” it was a rhetorical question. “Nothing, everything with DNA gone. That means that thing may not have been responsible for the disappearances. We would have found it creeping around Sonora, the last place of contact.”

“You have been busy; but you’re not the only one who’s been burning the midnight oil. I’ve also tried to come up with an explanation and I think I may have another explanation for their presence in the Golla System. Let’s say that you want to take over planets, and the local inhabitants frown on that type of thing. After all, it’s their home and you’ve just invoked squatters’ rights. You’re the big man in the galaxy, you want space, and these upstarts are keeping you from developing the neighborhood. You have no fear of the law, because you are the law. How would you deal with the squatter’s?”

In this case, just wipe them out I suppose. Leave the buildings and other hard assets and get rig of the rest.”

“Exactly. You know have an empty house; you can bring in the moving van and the rest of your family and Bob’s-your-uncle, instant homestead.”

“You’re implying that thing was the moving truck?”

“I am saying exactly that. Check this out.” They walked over to a computer terminal, Jokinen pulled up a file he was working on. “I’ve pulled data and run sims taking all the information we have. And before you put your hand up, I know that the data’s incomplete. But at this time is all we have.”

Kir watched with interest the simulation play out. Once finished, he took a step back and closed his eyes, rubbing them first, then his temple. “I’m getting a headache with this stuff. It makes sense though. Kill off all life then seed the planet with your own, more friendly DNA plants, food, whatever. But kill them off how? And do what with the bodies?” Kir thought for a second longer before adding, “Holy crap on a cracker, we skipped Sonora. What would we have found there? The death ship itself?!?!”

“My thoughts exactly.”

The proximity alarm sounded, startling both men as they glared up at the speaker grill.

“We must be coming up to Preston,” volunteered Kir.

As they ran toward the lift, Kir asked, “Okay, if you’re right, and I think you are. What the hell do the aliens want with our data base? Why tap into the colony computers after whipping out the colony?”

“That my friend is a good question.”

On the bridge, they both took up positions, Kir on propulsions and Jokinen on sensors and weapons.

“We have life!” exclaimed Jokinen with a large grin.

Kir reached over and reconfigured his terminal for communications; calling up Preston’s Moon colony comm channel. “Preston’s Moon this is military shuttle on emergency channel fore-six-five. Preston’s Moon colony, this is Military Shuttle on emergency…”

“Preston’s Moon colony here. Identify yourself military shuttle.” The response was sharp with a hint of bitterness coming though as if to say, why are you bothering us.

Kir typed in a security override command on the comm terminal and waited for a response.

“Preston’s Moon colony confirms ship identification. State your business military shuttle.”

“Who are these guys?” mumbled Jokinen out of range from the mike. “We’re trying to save their collective ass and they question why we’re here?”

Kir continued seeking while nodding agreement to Jokinen, “Military shuttle, Sergeant Kir here. Patch me through directly to your…”

Jokinen quickly interrupted, cutting off the mike. “Wait… We’re not sure who we can trust, remember? We need to tread lightly here. Just ask for their maintenance tech supervisor. We’ll feign some comm issue, land, and check things out.”

“Good idea. I have my own thoughts along those lines as well.” He keyed the mike, “Sorry, we’re having some computer and communication issues that are getting worse. Put me through to your comm supervisor, we need to land and get this sorted.”

“Maintenance personal has left for the day, but land on pad zero-two and we’ll get you somebody to check out your comm tomorrow morning.”

Kir and Jokinen grinned, “Roger, pad zero-two. Out.”

“So, what’s your idea?”

“Simple, we find out by reviewing the space port landing logs. That data is open for review after all and wouldn’t draw any suspicion. The guilty party or parties will have come from the last distress settlement. Find him or her and we’re one step closer to, hopefully, stop the carnage that seems to be heading our way.”

And what if he, or she, has hidden their tracks?”

“Not likely. This hasn’t been made public to avoid mass panic and I’m betting this traitor has been counting on that little fact. He comes in on a scheduled ship, or lands in his own, and gets his job done. I suspect he books it out as quickly as his job is completed, so as to not get trapped. We’ll need access to the colony ship logs as soon as we land.”

“Sounds simple enough, I just hope we can get this solved soon. I need a good stiff drink. One thing we should do is send another sit-report to base. If the commandant has been able to get some transport, we’ll need them here for an evac. We’re running out of time however; I’ll send off a flash message.”

Preston’s Moon was remarkable for just one thing, a rich deposit of iridium, one of the rearest minerals found in the human settled world’s. The Colony was set up by the Preston Sac Corporation just to mine, process and ship the element. The moon itself, while pleasant enough for humans, was no vacation spot. It orbited a large gas giant which in turn orbited a pale yellow sun nearing the end of its rein as a primary star. The amount of heat radiation coming from the start was about half of what Sol produced for Earth. It was the tectonic action of the moons core due to the gravitational pull of the gas giant that kept it at a livable temperature.

The population of three hundred and eighty miners, administrators, technicians and researchers along with the families of colony staff posed a problem nether seargent felt they had sufficient resources for.

Jokinen watched the exterior monitors carefully as they approached the landing vector. There wasn’t much in the way of green and what there is was scattered in and amounst the living quarters.

The colony was set up like a small town of the old Mid Western United States on earth, with the main administrative structure at the centre while maintenance and housing radiated outwards in a spoke like pattern. None of the buildings exceeded two stories and all were the standard drab gray-white colour. There wasn’t anything remarkable about the colony.

Jokinen could make out the landing port, factory building and affiliated out-buildings all along the edge of the of the main housing section. Inside of the larger structure sat dozens of single and dual family housing domes, each one situated along a system of paved road and walkways that lead toward the centre of town.

“I’ve identified the main administrative complex and data centre,” Jokinen called back to Kir.

“We’re running out of time. We need to land now.”

Jokinen looked over his right shoulder, “No need to get your knickers all twisted my friend. We’ll make it.” He wasn’t nearly as sure about that statement as the words implied.

Blinding white landing lights lit up the belly of the shuttle and pointed down towards the pad. Landing struts extended from the main lifting body of the shuttle as the main engines rotated in preparation for landing. Landing pad zero-two lit up with two rings of concentric white lights encircling the outer section of the pad and a series of red directional lights marking the orientation of the shuttle on the pad began to flash.

“As soon as we’re on the ground, log into the space port landing logs. I’ll access the colony logs and launch the tracking program. If anyone tries to shut things down or lock off access we’ll know.”

Kir nodded and began to type in his command access code, giving him access to the landing logs.

Jokinen hadn’t lost his piloting skills as the shuttle skids touched the landing pad with just a slight kiss. He shut down the main engines, and locked off the flight controls.

“Military shuttle, this is Colony Space Port Administrator Walsh. I have been informed of your emergency and welcome you to Preston’s Moon Mining Colony. We don’t get many unscheduled ship visits and you are only the second military shuttle we have welcomed.”

“Second military shuttle?” Kir stared at Jokinen and shrugged his shoulders. “What other military shuttle are they talking about?”

Jokinen’s eyes widened and he too shrugged his shoulders, “I have no clue. The Commandant said nothing about a previous mil-shuttle being sent out; could they have meant since the establishment of the colony?”

As if on queue, the radio cracked to life again, “I guess its been very busy in the military these days… its only been two weeks since your comrades visited us from Sonora. I would like to invite you and your crew to a meal with my staff. Its not much but we have a chief that can do wonders with colony rations.”

“Ah…” Jokinen thought quickly, “Thank you for the invitation, we would love to join you but we have to try and sort out these comm and computer issues we’re having. Let us power down, lock off the affected systems and we could meet you afterward? Oh, they’re only two of us on the ship.”

Kir grinned, “Good thinking. Hey, I found something in the landing port logs that refer to that other mil-shuttle. It does say their departure point was Sonora but they did not list their final destination. How the hell could they have come from Sonora two weeks ago when we lost all contact two months ago?”

“They couldn’t have. I just pulled up a listing of all military outposts, ships and exercises and it confirms what you and I both already know. There have been no exercises, no outposts past our own little base and no ships that were ever listed as being in this sector.” Jokinen mulled over other possibilities quickly. “Pull up the visual logs for the port.”

“Good thinking. Looks like you’re learning from your betters.” Kir grinned at his friend.

“You’re older…. Not better you bum.”

“Got it.” After a pause, Kir transferred the image to the main viewer.  “You’re not going to like this.”

The image flashed on the larger main screen and both sergeants watched in confused horror.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“It looks like a miniature version of the moving van we just left behind at Golla Two. Its about the same size as this shuttle but…. How in the hell can these idiots confuse this for a human ship never mind a military shuttle?”

“Lets find out. Transfer the image to a tablet and bring it with you. We’re going to have a bite to eat with our colony friends.”

Kir transferred the image and a copy of the landing log for the ship to a free tablet and put it in his right pant cargo pocket. “Ready? Then let’s get going.”

The main hatch cycled open and the two men entered the access tunnel on the landing pad. As they came close to the hatch at the end of the ramp, it cycled open and they were greeted by a woman wearing  standard colony coveralls with red trim on the upper right sleeve denoting  colony administration.

“good morning gentlemen, my name is Port Administrator Walsh, Mary. Welcome again to Preston’s Moon.”

Jokinen was first to speak, “Thank you for your assistance Administrator…”

“Mary, please. I don’t stand of formalities hear,” she smiled and extended her right hand in greeting.

“Sorry, Mary. My colleague and I appreciate any assistance your tech crews can provide in getting our ship’s communication working again. I am Sergeant Murdock Jokinen and this is Sergeant Draylan Kir.”

Mary shook their hands in turn and directed them to follow her.

“Ah, before we go, I wonder if you can help us out. I didn’t know there was another military shuttle out this far in the rim. Do you remember the commander’s name or the type of shuttle they were…”

Interrupting again, Mary said, “The shuttle commander was Captain Red and his second in command was Captain Black. They were perfect gentlemen, even through they could not stay very long.”

“What did their shuttle look like?” Kir wanted to see if she thought the strange alien ship looked human.

“What? It looked like your shuttle Sergeant; a standard military shuttle.” They stopped walking and she turned to face Kir and Jokinen. “What’s this about Sergeant?”

“Mary, we need to meet with the head of your colony administration right away. It’s a matter of some urgency and…” He was interpreted. Mary seemed to have a habit of doing that and it was getting annoying.

“I’m sorry, but the Head Administrator is off planet right now. But you must know that.”

Jokinen cur in, “Why would be know that Mary?”

“Why? Because Doctor Meredith left with the other shuttle two weeks ago for your meeting?!” She seemed confused and alarmed at the same time.

Now it was Kir’s turn to sound confused, “Meeting? The military has no planned meetings with any colony personal in this sector planned. As a matter of fact, we’ve just come from the only military base in this whole sector… And I can assure you that we are the FIRST military ship to venture out this way.”

Mary took a step back and bounced into the bulkhead, a puzzled, queer kind of look crossing her face at the realization something was terribly wrong dawned on her.

“Mary,” began Jokinen in a softer tone, “Colony Directorate has asked the military to look into why colony after colony has gone dark. It began with Golla Two five months ago, then Curtis Falls four months ago, Aegis Three, and then Sonora lost contact two months ago. So you see, no human shuttle could have come from Sonora two weeks ago.”

He let that sink in. Mary was in shock and seemed unsure of what was going on. She looked to her left, then over at the far wall. Her mouth moved, as if to say something but no words came out.

Kir and Jokinen both took and arm and helped her to the waiting area, helping her into a seat.

“I saw the shuttle. I spoke with the two captains, and so did everyone else. We all did. How can you stand there now and say that it did not happen when…”

Kir pulled out the tablet, “Mary, you said that the shuttle on the landing pad was the same type of military shuttle we just landed in. Have you every seen a military shuttle before?”

She shook her head no.

Kir turned the screen to Mary, “This is the image from the security camera taken at the time you said a military shuttle, like ours, landed. Does this look anything like our shuttle?” The question came out harsh, far harsher than he wanted it to.

Mary looked at the image, stunned in silence. She shook her head and placed it between her legs, holding it with both hands.

“No No No No! I saw the same shuttle you two came in on and it was not that….that thing. What the hell is going on here? And where is Doctor Meredith? Who… what did he leave with?”

“That’s what we want to know too, because Preston’s Moon is next in line and we think that it, what ever it is, has already begun. Can you call an emergency meeting of the colony leaders, community managers and supervisors? Get them over here right away. We have something else to show them and we need to do it fast.”

It did not take long for Mary to contact all the leaders of Preston’s Moon. The meeting room was small, but accommodated everyone, some standing other seated around the table. Everyone was watching the large screen at the far end of the wall opposite the door.

“You have everything we know to this point, except this.” Kir activated the holo projector and the image of the ‘moving van’ came up on the screen.

There was an audible and collective gasp as the size, scope and implication of what they all saw on the screen sank in.

“What the fuck is that thing?!” someone yelled from the group; and it was not the only expletive spoken. Everyone began to speak and shout all at once as the first vestiges’ of panic began to take hold.

Jokinen had to yell louder to get the group to settle down; his voice carried the command presence honed over years of leadership as a sergeant. He began to feel that old sensation come back and it felt good to have a real mission. It’s been too long he thought.

“That’s ENOUGH! We can NOT all speak at the same time, and panicking is not going to help this colony survive. Sergeant Kir and myself have been sent to recon the situation, report back to Central Command and provide as much assistance we can to aid in the evacuation of any colony in danger. “ The room quieted down and people began to settle.

Someone asked a question, “What can we do? How much time do we have?” We have over three hundred miners, researchers, technicians and their families on this rock. How do we get everyone off?”

Kir spoke now, “All very good questions. To answer the first, we can get people off planet by implementing the evacuation protocol. You have our shuttle, and from the information we’ve been given by your space port administrator, you also have three ore processing ships in orbit along with two fast currier shuttles. Between the shuttle, the two ore ships and one of the fast shuttle, we’ll have enough space for everyone. But you must begin the evacuation now.”

A young man spoke up, “I’ll begin sending the evacuation recall notice. It’ll take time though. At least seventy five to ninety minors are at their shifts now. It’ll take about two hours to get them recalled and to the ships from the depth they are at.”

“Good, some of you can help him get the message out. Take nothing but immediate provisions and clothing; take nothing else. We will not have the space to start packing carry-on luggage.” Said Jokinen.

Kir quickly followed up, “Your next question was how long we have? Well sir, that is a very good question that we just don’t have the answers to. On our way here we bypassed Sonora and from the known timeline, we realized the ‘death ship’ may have been there. We just don’t know how long they stay, how long the process is, and when they will be heading this way.

The plan to evacuate Preston’s Moon continued for another four hours before breaking up and everyone went about the massive task of evacuating over three hundred people in a hurry. Everyone had a job to do, from getting the populace to the space port, to evaluating the miners underground.

Jokinen stood by the front landing strut of their shuttle. The sun was waning in the sky and a few clouds drifted by, being pushed by the unseen hand of a mild breeze high in the stratosphere. The clouds were lit from the bottom as the sun continued sinking in the horizon.

“You look like someone is about to pee in your drink my old friend.” Kir came up from behind, two cups of coffee in hand.

Taking one of the steaming cups, Jokinen answered, “You and I are both smart enough to know that nothing in life is that simple. At least if someone pissed in my drink I’d be able to confront the bugger. This… this is different. We still have no clue who may be helping the aliens and why; nor doe we have any clue of a timeline. We could get caught with our pants down any second now. We just don’t know when that ‘death ship’ will arrive.”

“I hear you my friend but what’s our option. The two ore ships can’t be remotely landed till tomorrow morning at the earliest. They still have to uncouple the storage pods from the ship and then remote it to the landing field. Loading the people won’t take too long but the ships are not exactly fast movers. Even without the pods they have very slow acceleration with the ion drives they use. Steady yes, but very slow to build up any speed.”

“I know, but what has me flummoxed is this matter of why Mary thought she was meeting two captains from a military shuttle that looked remarkable like ours. If it wasn’t for the fact that you can’t fool the recording devices, we would have no record of any ship. What was it? Mind probe, mass hypnosis, hologram? Whatever it was would have had to work on both the ship and the – people, she and everyone saw.”

Kir pulled a tablet from his jacket pocket and handed it to Jokinen. “This may explain some of it. I looked up the colony staff records for everyone. I wondered why they, whoever they are, would take the head of colony. Turns out that only two people have the access codes to the computer and comm system. The very codes that can be used to remote access the entire database.”

Jokinen did not sound surprised, “This does add one more piece of the puzzle and I’m beginning to see a whole picture forming. Stop me if this makes no sense. Take what we theorized on our way here about the ‘moving van’ and what the aliens want. It would make sense, for any invading species, to do a recon and scout out the planet, its defenses, resources, everything. This ship on the launch pad camera is that scout ship and through some from of mind control or manipulation, find out who has access to the codes.”

Kir chimed in, “They kidnap him, or her, and bring in the death ship, wipeout all life and using the codes acquired from the first victim gain access to all the colony database.”

“Yes, but why would they need the database anyway? They have the planet.”

“Maybe that’s the prelim scouting. The database has all the information on the resources, nature of the planet, the next planet in line and…. Shit!”

“What? Oh crap on a cracker! I just got it. Our planet is next in line! If they’ve already gained access then they may be headed….”

“If they got access they’re already on their way. We have to get their fast. A message packet will never reach in time.”

Kir thought quickly, looking around for inspiration he noticed the two fast courier ships on the next launch pad. “I can take one of the fast courier ships. If I leave now, I can get to into comm range in three days. A message packet would only arrive four days and they’d have to decode it.”

The sense of urgency just retched up ten-fold in the minds of both sergeants. Jokinen could not fault the logic in Kir, knowing that Kir was a skilled pilot and fully checked out on the fast courier ships.

“I hate the two of us separating like this Kir. I have a bad feeling.” Jokinen knew that one of them had to stay behind to oversee the evacuation. They were responsible, they were in charge and only they could be on scene to make the attempt.

“You always have a bad feeling. Look, it’ll be fine. Get the people off as quickly as possible and get back to safe space. I’ll get the word to Commandant Bugatti. The force can intercept the bad guys and by the time you arrive, I’ll have things ready for you and I to fly off to some safe part of the galaxy on a beach world filled with women and booze.” Kir grinned from ear to ear.

“You shit; I don’t believe that anymore than you do. Just be safe… okay.”

“You too my friend.”

Kir ran to the first fast courier and keyed in the override to open the hatch. He reached up quickly and began the automated pre-launch sequence and check out. He turned to see Jokinen make his own mad dash for the administration building. Stopping just at the door, he looked over to Kir and waved. Kir waved back but then gave a thumbs up and another toothy smile. It wasn’t real but he knew his friend’s smile was a facade also.

Life in the galaxy just became a dangerous shell game and as in most shell games, the odds are stacked against the player. Kir was fully aware that they may never see each other again. It was hours away from the expected loss of communication with command if these aliens stuck to their previous timetable.

The computer signaled to Kir that pre-launch sequence was completed. The ship had already been fueled and that saved time. Precious time that Kir once thought to be infinite was not ticking down to the end of everything he knew and cared about.

He reached up to the hatch and pulled down the mounting ladder. Climbing up, he reached over and pulled himself to the pilot chair, closing and sealing the hatch at the same time. Self diagnostic data scrolled across the secondary screen while Kir programmed the nav-computer on the main screen in front of his controls. An audible beep sounded to indicate the main engine pressures’ were now optimal and the ship was ready for launch.

“Preston’s Moon, this is fast courier two-four-niner ready for launch. All systems show green.”

“Shuttle two-four-niner, launch when ready. Good luck Sergeant Kir.”

Good luck to all of us, he thought then activated the launch drive.

Forty seconds later he was in space as the ship nosed its way over to the correct navigation plane for his trek home and with luck a very large drink. Kir smiled at the inner thought as he gave the command for the ship to transit to hyper. For the next four days he would be in the safest place in the universe as nothing could touch or interact with a ship in the void between space and time.

Time to sleep; for now anyway. Time for the meds to kick in and take his mind away for the next few hours.

As the fast courier ship came up to the designated breaking time three days after launch, Kir cinched up his restraint straps. Inertial compensators would keep him from splitting against the forward bulkhead but Kir also was very paranoid about automatic systems, preferring instead to be on manual as often as possible.

The ship entered normal space and continued to decelerate. Kir had programmed the communication system to contact Commandant Bugatti as soon as they exited from hyper.

Kir frowned when he received no reply right away. Even with the time delay, the FTL comm system on the courier ship should have gotten through to Bugatti.

Finally, “Courier ship two-four-niner you’re calling on an emergency comm channel for Commandant Bugatti. State the nature of your emergency and why you need to speak with the Commandant?”

Kir felt a chill come over him. Why not just patch me in to Bugatti he though. They know what my mission is and how important it is for the the human race to survive.

Kir got back on the comm, this time insisting to speak with Bugatti.

“Courier ship two-four-niner, you know that Commandant Bugatti has already for Preston’s Moon in the shuttle you sent for him. What the hell are you playing at Kir?”

Kir throttled back the ship and sat in silence, letter the tiny ship drift in space on a ballistic trajectory. He knew what had happened. That Bugatti and everyone else had been tricked to believing what never was. That Bugatti was most likely dead by now; that that the codes for much of the planetary defense were lost.

He also knew that his friend would have been out of time if they hadn’t gotten off that rock and that even if they did, it was headed here, to this planet and a population that was now on borrowed time. So little time to ponder time and the futility of measuring it. Kir realized at that moment that time really didn’t matter. Life would continue in some form even after time ran out. What was sad for him was that he wouldn’t be around to see time unfold. He realized that four hundred years of peace had, in the end doomed the human race. Humanity could never stand up to this threat unless it had the time to prepare and they were out of time.

Kir pointed the nose of the ship toward the main sequence star.

Time…. Time to live, time to die. Time to dream. Time to sleep.

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