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~SUPPORT INDIE~

PLANET STRIKE

OCCUPATION

Galactic Coordinates: DAZIV: 01B8:0081:0A20:01AA

Star Group: The System: Pintarus 19 (Aiden)

Planet: Aidennia

System Star Cycle: 6752.0719 A.T.

Planetary Date: 171/195

The homo terran species that inhabited The System intentions were peaceful, although around it were other, more belligerent powers such as the saurian populated Tauron Empire. As The System expanded within its Pintarus Cluster through the admittance of more and more neighboring worlds populated with diverse lifeforms, until it came into conflict with a Sauria power. A hostile first encounter briefly erupted between the two. They were unlike anything The System had ever encountered and were only foiled by chance and resourcefulness. The System was thus schooled in the fact that, in the vast, unexplored reaches of the galaxy beyond what they knew, there were threats that they could not even imagine. Relations with the Taurons remained hostile, albeit at a low, ‘cold war’ level.

Moving on from this confrontation, The System began an unprecedented period of peaceful exploration of the galaxy, free of major conflicts. With a territory spread across eight thousand light cycles, it had a membership of over a hundred and fifty worlds. A populous that was seventy-percent non-reproductive, governing a minority of those that did. The non-reproductive caste, known as the Echelon, held sway over the prosperity of the united planets with its magnanimous ideology.

Due to the shared stewardship philosophy of The System, the current era defined its status quo in a period of ‘overpopulation’, therefore expansion seemed to be a logic solution. There were plenty of virgin planets beyond the Pintarus Cluster to explore and colonize.

Aidennia was a planet where the seat of The System influence thrived. As such, the collective senate voted it should be trailblazer. The first of many pioneering probeships of the New World Fleet was constructed and set to launch with expediency. The first colony ark was docked in perigee to Orbiter 1: Aidennia Station.

The AST Saarien had a beauty that was different from any other spaceship yet seen, a slim soarer, as swift and tireless as an aquatic raptor. It was a series of six majestically streamlined, composite welded sections divided into forty-two decks accessible via a series of service tubes, travellators, and lifts linked together in a straight line by a central spine. From its bow’s curved vertical Command Tower through its discus hangar section through to its ‘boxy’ hyperplasmic drive, complete with the hyperdrive nacelles integrated into the fuselage. It spoke of artistry and innovation.

In Orbiter 1’s operations center, the mission controller finished his countdown and then announced, “Initiate.”

Saarien ever so slightly trembled. With all the grace and splendor of a routine disembarkation, the probeship pulled away from its cradle. The blue white radiance of the Electromagnetic (Em) Drive’s sublight plasma jets quietly blasted out their streams of ionized gas, moving the Saarien away from Orbiter 1.

“Affirmative, Saarien, you have cleared Outer Dock perimeter,” the controller reported. “Saarien obeying all standards. Boosters disengage. Ready to voyage. Initiate gravity coils.”

It collected itself in a full red-shifted aura of its nacelles and winked with a flash into hyperspace. Behind Saarien, the planet Aidennia and its complement dwindled and vanished in a whirlpool of mottled starlight and pitch-black Space in 0.8 tenth of a micronode.

A junior officer tentatively approached from a communications wall within Orbiter 1’s command center. “Excuse me, General Ondon,” said Yeoman Bento Ekonsire. “I have a Priority One communique from ORB Central Control for you.”

Ondon Yisire, a youthful octogenarian hominid wearing the uniform of a Spacecorps general, straightened his tall frame as he turned away from the spacestation’s monitoring room main display projector. Suddenly, he had other pressing matters to oversee.

CHAPTER TWO:

Galactic Coordinates: DAZIV: 03B9:00018:0A40:02BB

Star Group: Boca Nebula

System Star Cycle: 6752.0729 A.T.

Station Date: 161/205

Quadrant Prefect Elyon Ba’al Sirdar Ruce Equerry-le stood proudly on the bridge of the supercarrier Rei Publicae’s bridge overseeing war preparations. Descending from the clade Sauria, the royal could not have been more pleased on how well the invasion plan was unfolding. He displayed all the typical physical characteristics of his aristocratic crèche: Dorsal origin of temporal musculature, loss of caniniform region in maxillary tooth row, external nares close to the midline, postparietal absent, squamosal mainly restricted to top of skull, the occipital flange of the squamosal was little exposed on the occiput, anterior process of squamosal narrow, quadrate exposed laterally, unossified dorsal process of stapes, and his stapes slender. A regal cephalic architecture.

The tapered multi-hued scaled musculature from his pectoral region through his chiseled abdomen ended in long muscled limbs that were accented by the presence of his thick, scaled caudal protrusion: a crocodilian tail. All tightly contained within the weave of his crimson uniform’s fibers. Polished black boots resembled two exclamation points where he stood.

“By your pardon, Quadrant Prefect,” asked Naik Liam Mede-le as he rose up the steps from the operations pit and onto the command dais.

“Report,” the supreme commander nodded in the Naik’s general direction, not taking his eyes off the control room’s panoramic observation forward port. The amassing invasion fleet waited beyond for his orders, like chaffing thoroughbreds in starting blocks.

“Word has just been received via scrambler,” the Naik went on. “Our Reproductionist sleeper is in position. He awaits your commandment.”

“The commandment is given,” smiled Equerry-le, rows of razor-sharp canines glistening in reflective recessed ceiling lighting.

As the ensign turned to relay the command, the Quadrant Prefect turned to his tactical officer. “The time has come, Tenuisque-le. Deploy the fleet as soon as the ORB falls! All destinations have been computed and programmed.”

“It will be my pleasure, Quadrant Prefect!” the Lepidosauria replied, tabbing his instrumentation panel with purpose.

“To the glory of the Supreme Prefect and Baal!”

“To their glory!”

***

The Outer Rim Barrier was nothing more than several trillion shield spheroid projectors; able to forestall the approach of any ship or cluster of ships determined to be hostile. The Barrier projectors had the capacity to render the drives of all modern vessels inoperative and could incapacitate an entire approaching fleet one ship at a time or all at once, as the requirements dictated. The closer the hostile vessel approached the Barrier, the more devastating the effects of the shield projector. A formidable and yet civilized weapon.

ORB 954 Spacebase Malernee was an old Carthagian gas mining station built in orbit of the Boca Nebula. The station assumed great commercial, scientific, and strategic importance almost immediately following renovations. Its gothic-ornate alien beauty hung in the vacuum of Space on the fringe of civilization.

Essentially a city in Space, Malernee station could support up to eight battle-class Spacecorps vessels, and up to twenty-four smaller ships as well as two hundred Locust-class fighters, eighty-five general utility crafts, one hundred shuttlecraft of various classes, and over fifty freighters. It was staffed by all the diversity of The System.

Within its bowels, the station command room was alive with activity. Since the launch of the Saarien ten rotates ago, all personnel were on the edge of their seats charting and plotting the super probeship’s trajectory from Aidennia through the System to the Barrier in this sector. Around the room, instruments and consoles began shouting for attention as the probeship Saarien began to approach the spacestation and the section of the Barrier in which it orbited.

Then attentions were turned as hostile forces were detected approaching the Barrier from the Tauron sector. “Prepare coordinates to intercept.” Station Commander Kohle Covinsiress turned to a voice pickup and her clipped words were broadcasted throughout the complex. “Station Commander to Operations Center! Alert! We are under attack! I repeat, we are under attack!”

Klaxons began to sound as she continued. “Incoming hostiles of varying metallic composition. Intercept and destroy, intercept and destroy. Squadron Flight Navigation, prepare for onboard reception of intercept coordinates. Launch Bay, prep Locust squadrons! Intensify Barrier grid output to maximum. Weapons Section, arm all pulse batteries.”

She looked back to the ensign that sat next to her staffing the tactical console; the pale pigment of his Potipharan skin seemed to blanch even more. “Make sure the intercept point is at least two-dozen spatial diameters out. Inform the Saarien to halt trajectory and abort planned transgression through the Barrier. Tell them to stand-by,” Kohle ordered.

Understood. Schematics and out-going communication forthcoming.” His determined fingers typed efficiently on his console’s light-projected keypad.

Like everyone else in the room, Ensign Choily Benselsire was relaxed and confident. They had been preparing for this attack over a century. A communications report flickered up for 3-D display, Benselsire hurriedly said, “The dockmaster reports that there is only one Battle-class vessel currently moored to Malernee Station; that being the Monaca.”

Get me that ship’s captain, immediately!”

Everything was functioning according to design. Everyone was at their proper post. Everyone except an operative making his way along the service conduit that ran behind the main warboard. He did not belong there, nor did the small package he carried so gingerly as a part of the intricate maze of circuitry and components that combined to provide the System Outer Rim Defense Command with necessary intelligence. Selecting a site, he placed the package in a gap between two fluid-state junctions. Then he retreated as fast as his feet would carry him just as the station’s PA net hummed with crisis management updates:

Stand by to initiate magnetic field modulation program…”

The Station Commander was feeling confident. She was in the process of requesting an update on the trajectory of the Saarien when the warboard erupted, followed by the console she was studying. It exploded in her face, shredding it along with that of the technician operating the instrumentation. The secondary power transient explosions that the first initiated started a number of fires were substantially effective in demolishing the mission command room. Staff moderators and structural materials were ejected as the destroyed core operations was exposed to the Void.

A plume of smoke, radioactive fission products and debris from the power core and the station rose up to about 1 kiloretem into Space. The heavier debris in the plume was deposited close to the station, but lighter components, including fission products and virtually all of the noble gas inventory were blown by the prevailing explosive decompression to the vacuum. Fires started in what remained of the superstructure, giving rise to clouds of steam and dust, and fires also broke out in the adjacent turbine module.

Simultaneously, the chainmail configuration of the Outer Rim Barrier appeared to waver and to rip along the seam between the proximal ORB projectors. Resembling a tear, the mesh ‘unzipped’ revealing an awaiting staging area of the Tauron War Fleet.

Warning! Warning! ORB Breach! ORB Breach at 954! Hostile intrusion into System Space!” the perimeter alert echoed throughout the failing watchdog station.

From all points within the spaceborne fortress, personnel went into damage control mode as the lumen count turned scarlet under the wail of klaxons and the thump of an attack began to not only shake, but also reverberate down collapsing corridors. Spot fires were a rash across the length of the base as defensive shields failed and angular Tauron Pterosoars pinwheeled in for the kill.

The terran ‘sobriquet’ Starhound for the saurian fighters had come about by their design’s similarity to a leaping canine when its four-point landing gear was locked in its ‘up’ position: sporting a long, narrow cockpit and a lithe, muscular drive fuselage that was slightly arched. Its weapon systems were integrated into the forward section, only adding to the sleek architecture of the craft’s lines. The Tauron name for the fightercraft (Pterosoar) was unknown to any terran unlucky enough to encounter one; let alone, a squadron.

As the Saarien prepared for transition across the ORB, its perimeter alert blared. The probeship’s overseeing crew was sent into a whirl of uncertainty. Something unscheduled and alien was in their flight path.

Identification of approaching object?” Captain Cellini snapped, a golden skinned Dorian. He twitched his dark mustache nervously.

The Aidennian pilot Major Nicraan Matasire was ready, but the answers were not the best. “Unknown. Configuration unknown. Origin unknown, sir.”

“Lieutenant,” Cellini called over his shoulder. “What are our sensor readings?”

All that Controller Reta-Nerim could do was glare at her controls in frustration; confused signals were being relayed from the ship’s sensor arrays. Her main holoset projected the nearby spatial grid analysis. The tactical holosets and flat panel screens cleared; then new information presented itself for review. Sensors cleared and the same presentation displays reconfigured their reports; again fresh data flashed before Reta-Nerim’s hopeful stare.

Report!” Cellini insisted.

The Calliopean almost screamed her response, her lynx-like features blanched as she reported, “Captain! Scanners identify a massive Tauron staging area ahead leaving the Boca Nebula. Technology is vastly different than data in files on any Tauron spacecraft. War Computer reports that it is having difficulty in assessing defense tactics.” Reta-Nerim went reporting tensely, “A destroyer-configured battlecruiser is heading our way. Design is based on the old Imperial Tauron Navy A’Gnitk-class battlecruiser, however this ship’s construction is a trans-supradrive-capable fire platform of considerable firepower and durability. Coming into visual range.”

The approaching Saarien in short time surrounded, became lost in the melee, eventually an erupting fatality with one of its saucer-shaped Portable Off/Onworld Domicile (POD) ships escaping. Falling through the ORB rift into the unknown sectors beyond.

A lifeboat for an ill-prepared crew…

***

ORB 1963, Spacestation Etson orbiting the barren outpost planetoid of Avery I was a hypopace communications relay locus near the Tauron-ORB border. The station had stopped responding to repeated hails shortly after a general alert had been sounded from ORB Central Control. The alarm came shortly after Spacebase Malernee at ORB 954 had suddenly gone dark. The station commander did not believe in waiting for three strikes.

Over the station PA network came the official announcement of a new status quo, “This is the Commander. All station personnel will remain at their posts or in their quarters during the crisis blackout. Deactivate main circuits.”

The Papuan Salone communications expert Quiel Varusiress sat alert at her station; her back ramrod straight in the dim light of the station’s monitoring room. Her pale face was an ever-changing mask of Salone facial expression as she pressed her earpiece tighter into its position. “What’s that noise?” she sobbed.

“You’re hearing a few thousand hypospace messages,” interpreted Commander Spar Insonsire, an ethnic Amerindian. “I’ll try and shut it off.”

The athletic Janurian male leaned forward over Quiel’s console and examined the board closely. Finding the correct icon, he waved an ebon hand over the motion-sensitive control. “There,” he sighed. “Got it.”

“Sir,” Quiel timidly said. “How long will this blackout last? We are scheduled to recalibrate and align the antennae systems in the next three nodes.”

“Until this crisis passes or is resolved.”

“Not to question your orders, Sir,” Quiel replied. “If we do not reactivate, the greatest loss will probably be in the satellite department. The crisis has not reached the satellites, of course, but the blackout is causing signals acquisition problems. And many planetary ground stations are no longer reporting.”

“Well, they could do for a bit of a rest.”

“Yes, sir. However, in a few nodes it will be too late. Our temperature is dropping rapidly. This will eliminate half our instruments. Water in the recycling plant is frozen. Hydroponics: frozen. Protein production unit: inoperative. I request permission to restore power immediately.”

“Maintain power level as is.”

The station’s medical officer voiced her concerns as an alert bleeped blatantly on her console. “Commander,” she called out, her Erytheman features suddenly flushed scarlet. “The oxygen units have failed. We are on emergency. We must have more power.”

From across the small command center, lead technician Ifton Senojsire stepped away from his circular console and approached, saying, “Commander, I just received some images from the System Intragalactic Station. You’d better take a look.”

Insonsire followed the Guarenten to a holo-monitor set into the main technical console and there, for the first time, saw the invasion whole. He stared down at the dark mass made weirdly beautiful by infrared imaging that saw through the cloud tops of the Boca Nebula into its structure. A map was overlaid on the nebula, and heavily-armed space vessels could be seen on its ‘northern’ border over ORB 954, somewhere ‘north’ of Spacebase Malernee, while it’s more clearly defined southern border reached well into unexplored Space. A clear ‘rip’ in the Barrier was visible. Through the breach advanced a fleet of Tauron invasion forces. Malernee station was in flames.

“The hostile fleet is fifty mets in diameter,” Ifton said, pointing to a spot approximately a kiloretem in advanced of the burning space fortress. “As the rift in the ORB grows, the number of Tauron vessels is growing. And cells emerging in the Cush and Mantillas solar groups are even bigger.”

“Pray to the Maker.”

The technician pointed to a nasty bulge in the overall mass of the invasion fleet. “This supercarrier is going to jump to Aidennia.”

“Break silence,” Insonsire sobbed. “See if any of you can reach Aidennia.”

Immediately, the lumen count on the station returned to normal. Every communications officer in the monitoring center began using every means available to try to let the people on Aidennia that would soon be facing this thing know of their peril.

“Perhaps a few will be able to save themselves.” He looked up at Ifton, his tired mind focusing on a small detail that suddenly seemed intensely important. “Does the Senate know?”

“We cannot reach them.”

“What’s the System’s status?”

“We’ve been vastly harmed,” Ifton said candidly, “but we are not killed. The galactic western sectors are functioning as far north as TRA 4—battle-worn, but not killed. Much of the southwestern sectors are intact, also, as are southern sectors: Hollis-Specific, including Asenath, Potiphar, and Heliopolis are hubs of organization and the source of medical and food supplies for millions.”

“Those supplies will dwindle fast, and neither the Medical Corps Fourth Fleet nor local grocery supply chains will be able to obtain anything like what soon will be needed.”

The System resembled a great passenger liner that had taken a torpedo and was failing fast, but there were still people aboard with hopes, with dreams gazing out across the empty gulf for rescuers who were, themselves, already dead. Where planets were able, the emergency response consisted of an elaborate series of tents. Inside, staffers moved about in every direction, as such flimsy, inadequate nerve centers struggled to make some sense out of chaos, to get itself going, to offer meaning and support to The System people.

“Commander,” Quiel called out.

“What is it?”

“The First Fleet. It didn’t make it,” she said.

Insonsire’s eyebrows raised. She saw fear flicker in his eyes. He was obviously terrified at what he thought he was about to hear. “How… how could this happen?”

“Sir,” Quiel cautiously went on, “a word of foresight.”

“About…”

“Since silence has been broken, if we can track the signals of the Tauron invaders, they too can trace our probes back here… to us.”

“Damn!” the commander swore. “Everyone, resume black-out status! Now!”

The distant sound of the station generator changed, going high, then sputtering. As it sputtered, the lights flickered. Also, no doubt, the heat. Most of the facility had been closed off, leaving heat registers open only in the command room. When the generator failed, the reactor’s electric pumps would stop, and it would automatically shut down. The outcome would be simple: death.

“I’m losing life support systems three and six,” reported the station’s medico. An attention alert signaled from her console. “Support system three’s cutting out. Life support system six is fading out.”

“We must almost be out of plasmic fuel,” Ifton said.

Insonsire thought that they would lose consciousness from the cold in about a node. And how strange that seemed, to be in the last node of life. An operative moved about activating portable lanterns. The commander looked at his two assistants in their glow. They seemed to him to be two brave souls, sitting about in the jaws of death.

“Initiate secondary solar batteries. Prepare to evacuate all nonessential personnel,” Insonsire said softly.

The corresponding legend appeared flashing on communication holosets while a resounding klaxon strained against eardrums. In an orderly rush, lines formed before prepping shuttlecrafts in the hangar bay.

“I have a son,” Inonsire shared. “I just wish I could have seen him grow up.”

“All is not lost, Commander,” Quiel said. “He will grow up.”

Deep in the secrecy of his own mind, Insonsire wondered if it was even true. It might be that nobody in the System was going to survive… not one.

“Let it be,” Ifton said.

The commander smiled, distantly. He thought that the expression meant more than let it be to the idea that his son would grow up. It was a final word, a farewell to life.

“If it is to be,” Insonsire said quietly, more to his heart.

CHAPTER THREE:

The Pintarus Cluster was a group of stars that shared a common origin and were gravitationally bound for some length of time. Pintarus 19’s solar group was made up of many peoples and many planets, of which the planet Aidennia was one. For thousands of centuries it had cultivated a peace-loving federation of other Cluster worlds.

The planet Aidennia was true to its namesake: a delightful place, a paradise. It was a world of innocence, bliss, and ultimate happiness. An integrated landscape blending from the harsh, dry, arid deserts to jagged, angular rocky ranges softening into pale green, brown grasses of valleys under the azure, purple, crimson dome of a seasonal sky.

It was the hub of the interstellar democracy, The System; a federal republic composed of planetary sovereignties. As such, the planet was home to all the multiplicity of the colonized Quadrant. Tall in statue, Aidennians were known for their wide faces, broad shoulders, high cheekbones, dark hair, and almond-shaped eyes. An integument as smooth as silk and the hue of caramel covered their chiseled lithe musculature. Beauties the whole of them, by any standards.

Each member of The System had agreed to exist semi-autonomously under a single central government based on the principles of universal liberty, rights, and equality, and to share their knowledge and resources in peaceful cooperation, scientific development, space exploration, and defensive purposes. A peacekeeping and altruistic armada was formed: Spacecorps. It was unlike its imperial rival, who derived power from a single species subjugating other races.

It was into this solar group, that the Tauron war machine had entered. The period of peaceful exploration of The System ended abruptly. Like a vast angel of death, a full Tauron staging area including ships of major tonnage to their support and fighter crafts hovered over the cloud girdled Aidennia.

Fleet action engagement started at the solar group’s dual moons, blasting their lunar surfaces and moonbases with magnetized plasma weaponry; sending metric tons of regolith in slow motion radial patterns up and outward. Dead volcanoes, impact craters, and lava flows topography terminally altered. Orbital and planetary defenses engaged but were quickly overwhelmed leaving the world below vulnerable.

Death and carnage that was calculated, swift, and complete.

The destroyer Enemic Assassin along with its support Strikecruisers Poderós Cojedes, Pietat Amazonas, and Barinas trailed behind the fleet’s flagship combatant supercarrier llangardaix Maxim in high orbit between the planet, its twin moons, and spatial wreckage.

On board the flagship, its supreme lord commander-in-chief smiled as he stood in regal splendor and stared out his private chamber’s observation port framing the planet below. Reflective light glistened golden from his scaled flesh, highlighting the bands of yellow, red, and black marking him from head to toe. The pattern continued along his exposed arms, fingers, and tail, the narrow band of yellow contrasting with the thicker bands of red and black. The scales seen through his red uniform tunic’s mid-drift of his abdomen were similarly colored. Under the black V-collar though, his scales were slightly bleached over of his chest. His face did jut into a pincered muzzle, complete with a leathery-lip mouth. There was no hint of his seldom seen retractable fangs. Seven black thorns jutted up through his scalp, the largest sprouting from just above his forehead, aligned with his strong, broad nose. He observed the debris field, scorched and twisted hulls, burnt frameworks, and charred construction fragments gleaming with the reflected glow of the recent battle.

This area of Space was lit up as if seized by bright flashes of light, a death throe aurora. The entire Spacecorps primary fleet and its support structures were gone now. As he turned away and moved through the room’s opening door and toward the supership’s bridge, his dark eyes had no warmth in them at all, and his manner remained quite cool.

At the llangardaix Maxim’s command post, the fleet’s situation report was patched through. “Elyon Ba’al Sirdar, the Pterosoar recon and dispersal pods have been dispatched. The genolysis weapon is prepared. We’re ready to attack,” reported Churl Kruk-le, his protruding, pinpoint-pupiled eyes swung to regard his superior. “This is indeed an auspicious occasion.”

Yes,” the commander-in-chief nodded, then sighed, “I question though the wisdom of allowing such a mission commencing that is anything but secured.”

“Not secured? Did we not conquer these feeble people and take their world intact? Having delayed our invasion would have taken much of our resources had we planned it ourselves. Resources much better applied to our war efforts throughout the galaxy.”

The commander-in-chief leaned to a communications pickup, saying, “Attention all gunnery crews! Prepare to give covering fire to the recon assault group.”

The command “Ready all guns” and subsidiary orders rang through the armada. The long nuzzles nestled in hull recesses were run out and ranged in. Within their sights, the planet below. “Prep escort Pterosoar squads!”

Churl Kruk-le smiled, saying, “There… you see. Nothing to worry about. All goes as planned, safely.”

“Only because we worked night and day to coordinate with the terran separatists. I wish we could rid ourselves of this insidious race for the last time.”

“Only a question of time, isn’t it?”

“If I succeed, Kruk-le… I will be greeted on Taura as the greatest military leader in the history of the Empire. That is… if we succeed.”

Elyon Ba’al Sirdar gave the signal for dispersal. At key points along the supercarrier’s hull spherical missiles dropped. Each was destined for all the major cities of the planet below, and many of the smaller ones. Each sphere’s internal pressure was calculated so they would explode within the specified portion of the atmosphere.

Some of the metasomatic genolysis ‘dust’ would drift back to planet’s surface, mingle with the dirt and the water. All that was needed was to release a comparatively small amount into the atmosphere at the proper altitude for the genolysis agent to survive, and to reproduce. It would multiply, contaminating the water, becoming part of the living organisms—the whole food chain. The rest would become an organic, self-perpetuating adjunct to the atmosphere, making the planet forever unusable to its native inhabitants.

The whole of the Tauron fleet watched the missiles skitter downward, smiling.

***

Without preamble, malevolent silhouettes had emerged from hyperspace a few kiloretems from Aidennia’s outer orbit like brilliant flashbulbs. Perimeter security satellites’ relays were tripped, and alarms began to blare planetwide and throughout the orbital platform network.

Defense Alert!” blared on every functional communications hardware as “All personnel report to…” filled every military accommodations installation, giving further battle station locations. “Citizenry to bunkers!” resounded through cavernous metropolises.

While klaxons blared planetside and citizens made their way for protective safety-stations, ground-based military personnel that had been monitoring the progress of the Saarien abandoned their consoles and joined the hundreds that streamed across manicured lawns and automated walkways of Spacecorps installations. Moonbases had resembled disturbed mechanized hives, as spacestations became well-oiled fighting constructs. A rehearsed frenzy organized what looked like chaos. Everyone had gone into motion, no one stood still. Spacecorps officers, cadets, and Syntheforms reported to stations as their assignments were delivered via wireless handheld electrophoretic plates and PA systems. Support teams checked out Strig fighter-ships and loaded equipment. Everyone knew their roles; everyone knew where they needed to be…

On a hill overlooking the Aidennian city of Boisselle Province, the crowds waited to be admitted to the underground shelter system. Because of the dangerous nature of research and experimentation going on in Boisselle and the fact that the city complex would be a primary military target for any aggressor, the shelters had always had a high priority in the city’s construction projects.

Relatives were waiting fretfully with the thousands upon thousands of others. The emergency personnel were working as fast as they could but moving the huge population underground was time-consuming at best. The sound of a distant rumbling explosion was followed by a closer earsplitting noise of shattering windows and door panels all around the Province. Citizens turned and looked back toward the area where the explosion had occurred. Far away, some raucous shouting began.

A nervous wave of movement rippled through the crowds, which was interrupted as a Tauron Starhound/Pterosoar fighter streaked across the sky, shooting bursts from pulsed energy weapons into the crowds. People all around began to fall. A pyramidal building known to house the province’s security forces was set into the apex of the city; it exploded with a thunderous roar. A monolithic structure farther away started to fall forward, splitting away from its foundation, pieces of it falling onto a running mob. Streets began to rock, and pedestrians unglamorously fell.

A frightened siress called for her awestruck daughter, “Zienia! Come here, darling!”

Then everything went suddenly silent.

The populace seemed to freeze where they ran as the sound envelope became devoid of Tauron hostilities. It was then that they ‘felt’ a harmonic in the soles of their feet before they saw the source. Without warning, the day sky overheard lit up with the radiance of several suns going nova. The people jerked back, involuntarily throwing their hands up in front of their faces in an effort to shield themselves from the searing glare.

Then another flash washed out of the sky around them. As it dissipated, a swarm of bright pinpoint lights approached from above, moving with incredible speed. It was impossible to even estimate their number. They seemed to expand before their eyes as they hurtled toward them. The swarm grew rapidly. Citizens found themselves squinting, the glare was blindingly bright.

There was no more time to think. The spherical lights were upon them, streaking over the cityscape and countryside and crisscrossing, making a wide sweep around the Province.

Then someone began to scream, then another and another and another…

Pain!

An unbearable pain. Like drop-sticks, people stiffened wherever they were, holding their heads, fighting to maintain consciousness. They could not do it. Their eyes rolled up and they collapsed.

RESISTENCE”

CHAPTER FOUR:

Galactic Coordinates: DAZIV: 01B10:0087:0A21:03AA

Star Group: The System: Pintarus 21 (Mantillas Prime)

Planet: Mantillas III

System Star Cycle: 6753.0809 A.T.

Planetary Date: 187/187

Captain Aemila “Aleb” Amaya du siress of Mantillas III was young without one blemish to mar her face with a perfectly pale complexion. She was not tall nor short, but somewhere in between. Her shoulders were broad, and she held her noble head high with the air of confidence. Her hair was thick with satin jet-black curls that blew softly in the morning breeze, and as they did so, they looked as the black waves that filled oceans on stormy nights. She sat on her heels and recounted all she and her clan had suffered in the past rotates—how swift this devastation to her world! Some images were too much for her to bear, and a soft gasp escaped her. Through weary eyes, she watched the dawn ignite the vapors rising off the mountains of ancient Oab.

“You make it sound like it’s my own personal war”, she said to the petite female at her side as she stood.

The other female’s brown brow was soft, quizzical, and serene with purity and wisdom. Her jaw was set, and her mouth was thin, straight. “I don’t know…” First Lieutenant Acacia “Cassi” Paternostra du siress sighed, then frowned. “There is just a side of you I see that sometimes frightens me… What would you do without all this fighting… and…”

“Cassi… The alternative is complete obliteration for us.”

“I can’t believe that… I can’t believe that the Maker would let these hateful creatures take over the universe,” Acacia said as she turned away.

“Maybe it’s our own fault,” said Aemila, following her. “Where did these saurians learn war? From creatures like us?”

“No… Not like us. We have the capacity to love. They have no idea what it’s like to feel, and care, and love…”

“Do you think we’ll ever find time for ours? Have you decided what you want to do about us?”

An awkward silence came between them as they continued walking until then had entered a small cave ingress that narrowed and became a tunnel that descended into the bowels of the Oab sierras. It was into one of the many catacombs that the Resistance had taken occupancy in that they eventually came to a stop, before a multidimensional war map within the compound’s ready room. Squadron leaders and commanders were going over their plan of battle. The distinction in ranks was easy to discern via uniform coloring: flight officers were in blue, while command was in golden embroidered beige.

The Taurons have begun to run fuel ships along this route,” Commander Poppaea “Ped” Vere du siress said, indicating the map. “They are bringing their tankers through every fifteen rotates. Their convoy will have already left Mantillas IV, heading out-system. If we go full power all the way, we can still catch them before they are out of strike range.”

Full power, all the way?” asked Fleet Commander Vibia “Trinity” Skye du siress. She shook her head. “It’s risky, Ped. You will barely have enough charge to get you there and back.”

A female that represented the characteristics of someone that was successful, her determined resourceful and engaging countenance had the earmarking of being taxed.

We won’t need any more than that,” Vere du siress replied with certainty. An eye-catching female of ramrod posture and iron will, made evident by her stoic countenance framed by a gray-streaked, tightly bound mane.

You will still be playing it awfully close,” Vibia said. “Surely they must be flying with fighter escort on their convoys. A prolonged battle would use up all of your reserves.”

Except they will never be expecting us to hit them,” Vibia countered. “And, besides, I don’t fight prolonged battles with the Taurons. They are not that good. And, we are!”

Vibia “Trinity” Skye du siress frowned. The Strike Commander’s bombastic rhetoric was having its desired effect upon the squadron leaders; it was psyching them up. There was no denying the fact that her battle plan called for an extended strike that left absolutely no margin for error. They could not afford to lose any more ships. To say nothing of losing any more lives. Enough had died already. Moreover, there would be more before they reached their objective. It was inevitable. She was still the same old Vere du siress. The female who lived for battle. “Ped” Vere du siress was a willful female, a female who did not know how to compromise. A personal philosophy grounded in the belief that a female without ambition rarely achieve greatness. The males and females under her command, indeed, many of the people aboard the Fleet Commander’s battleship, respected such a trait.

That had never been Trinity’s way.

“Fine,” Skye du siress capitulated against her better judgment. “The Taurons need that fuel desperately if they are going to maintain their Occupation of The System. Taking possession of it would not hurt our efforts. Therefore, risky though this plan is, it is nowhere near as dangerous as attacking the Tauron ground base would be. We will send a single squadron from each of our two dreadnaughts.”

Ped shrugged. “Excellent. I am sure your pilots will welcome my experience. Let’s get to it.”

The Strike Commander turned and left the ready room, her squadron leaders snapping to and following in her wake. Aleb and Acacia stayed behind after the remaining males and females had exited, smarting a bit from Vere du siress’ remarks.

“I hope you realize,” said Aemila, “that this—adulation, this absolute awe everyone feels for her in no way detracts from how your personnel feel about you.”

“This is not a popularity contest, Aleb,” the Fleet Commander placed her hands on the other’s shoulders. “We are in a life and death struggle for survival. We need more individuals like Ped Vere du siress. The people of The System need heroes. They need males and females whom they can look to for hope. Brothers and sisters who can give them the courage to go on.”

“They feel that way about you,” smiled Acacia.

“And I hope I never disappoint them. Now get going. I do not want your squadron getting to those tankers after Ped’s already done the job.” Trinity smiled. “There is a matter of pride involved here, understand?”

“Yes, Commander!”

As the two females went off to do battle, Trinity wondered about what she had told her two subordinates. A matter of pride. It was what they had wanted to hear. She felt the way any officer might feel who saw their superior overshadowed by another. It was an understandable reaction, especially in ones as young as Aleb and Acacia.

***

The planet Mantillas III was a remote, desolate world orbiting a pair of binary stars, and inhabited by Mongoloid terran scientists. Logically designed metropolitan complexes linked to each other across the sandy expanses creating a planetary network of technology against the elements. The orderly patterns of the interdependent urban expanses’ collective beauty marred only by the growing presence of Tauron seizure and control.

High above the monotonous terrain in low northern polar orbit, a flurry of activity busied the catapult assemblies of both concealed battle dreadnoughts as the strike wings prepared for launch. Flight crews of the Strig fighters hurriedly ran their systems checks and flight-suited pilots mounted the steps leading to the cockpits of their ships.

The fighter craft were designed to be as light as possible, both for the sake of economy and because of all ships, the sleek fighter craft had the highest mortality rate. Easier to maneuver in battle, easier to launch with speed, the fighter craft had to be lightweight. The design was about speed and maneuverability—a vehicle for carrying minimal weaponry as far and as quickly as possible.

Sitting in their compartments, pilots for the Fleet Commander’s dreadnaught Arbitrator, Airmen Cam Ron du sire and Aros Astil du sire touched on their engine starters, their faces calm and composed as they watched the indicator lights on their respective consoles. Through their helmets comcircuits, they heard the voices of their launch crews as they ran through the final checkpoints preparatory to flight. Captain Aleb rested her hands lightly on the controls of her sleek fighter craft. She was in her element. Her mind was in a state of meditative calm as she waited for the final countdown. A glance to her right confirmed that Lieutenant Acacia was in the same state in her fighter, too.

Aboard the Strike Commander’s dreadnaught Steadfast, a flight-suited Ped Vere du siress strode confidently across the bay, heading for a Strig fighter. All around her, pilots ran to their own fighter crafts and vaulted into their cockpits. Within moments, all were hearing the voice of the launch officer through their helmets’ comcircuit.

Transferring control to Bluejacket Squadron. Launch when ready.”

 

ECHELON’S END: BOOK 1 LAST GENERATION

“Target”

CHAPTER ONE:

SYSTEM STAR CYCLE: 6752.0719 A.T.

PLANETARY DATE: 171/195

LAUNCH TIME: TEE-MINUS 02:32:30

A tranquil sphere hung in Space under a white cloud.

From a vantage point some four hundred kiloretems above, Medical Commander Dara Lidasiress was watching it beyond the thick syntheglass of an observation viewport; the sight was dizzying, fascinating. The cloud‑shrouded planet Aidennia. It seemed to lie almost in the trajectory of the Orbiter 1: Aidennia Station. The light of a strong, middle‑aged sun cataloged as Pintarus 19 fell on the cloud.

Every so often, its rays illuminated attractive patches of blue and green on the surface of the planet concealed beneath its halcyon mass, giving hints to the planet’s life abundant waterways and of its dense forests giving way to grasslands. Over millions of cycles, the continents of the planet Aidennia had drifted apart, jostled together, and regrouped to form new landmasses. It now was a world of two broad regions. In the west, a single landmass, to the east several continental plates fused but still separated from the western continent by the small and shallow inland Eocene Sea. Island subcontinents to the north and south with coral reefs bordered by the mighty Tethys Ocean.

It was a lush green world covered in a tropical and sub-tropical paradise whose continents lined by mangrove swamps behind which were dense deciduous rainforests, where each landmass had developed distinctive endemic animals and plants, natural selection had favored the most adaptable. Water levels and global temperatures were high – the spread of flowering plants filled the forests with fruits and scents and in the dense, heavy, and mobile waters, marine fauna and flora thrived. Life was sweet in the forests and waters that clothed the planet. Life grew healthy on diets of leaves, vines, roots, and fruit. In the forests was a menagerie of large vertebrates such as winged aviators, hoofed plant-eaters, and clawed carnivores. The warm planetary climate meant that the complex coral reef ecosystems flourished, as did the diverse off shore aquatic mammals, fish, and rich plankton and krill that roamed the globe.

Sprinkled here and there amongst the green and the blue of Aidennia resembling sparkling stylish jewelry was urban development, incandescent and translucent yellow, hallucinatory bright and sleek. Magnificent parishes populated by great engineers and architects, building magnificently towering structural constructs in cities with hot and cold fountains, statuary, communal dining halls and stone walls plated with precious metals, harbors and docks, spaceports, meditation temples, arboreal parks, athletic and cultural centers.

The very heart of The System hummed and grew, governing and guiding hundreds of solar groups and their populous worlds down there, on the lush, verdant world; a wealth of Aidennian culture thrived. The people of this world possessed great wealth thanks to the natural resources found throughout their planet, living simple, virtuous lives. Here was a planetary society interacting with many different interglobal cultures. Aidennia was thought more as a world rather than nations. Freedom of religion and cultural practice a guarantee. No one culture or group was able to dominate the rest.

Within that framework of diversity, all individuals on Aidennia and beyond had certain inalienable rights, including the material basics of existence, health care, education, and legal equality. The land, air, and water of Aidennia were in the common stewardship of the terran family, and not owned by any individual or group. The fruits of an individual’s labor belonged to the individual, and not appropriated by another individual or group. At the same time, terran labor on Aidennia – and throughout The System – was part of a communal enterprise, given to the common good. Aidennia, as all Systemite economic systems, reflected both these facts, balancing self-interest with the interests of society.

The goal of planetary as well as Systemite economics was not ‘sustainable development’ but a sustainable prosperity for each planet’s biosphere. Therefore, each planet’s landscape itself had certain ‘rights of place’ that were honored. The goals of environmental alterations were minimalist and ecopoetic, reflecting the values of universal harmony. Only a portion of each System planet lower than the five-kiloretem contour made terran-viable. Higher elevations, constituting some thirty percent of a planet, remained in something resembling their primeval conditions, existing as natural wilderness.

Decided eons ago during the early unification of The System’s first planets and subsequent habitation of other worlds that it was a historical process, as the colonization of new worlds was the first inhabitation of another planet by terrankind. As such, the perception in those formative times that colonization should be undertaken in a spirit of reverence for the planet and for the scarcity of life in the Universe. Those first settlements set precedents for further terran habitation of solar groups, and suggested models for the terran relationship to those planets’ environment as well. Thus The System’s first worlds, or Core Worlds, occupied a special place in history, and were remembered when the necessary decisions concerning life anywhere were made.

A giant oceanic storm lay framed before Dara’s eyes, capturing the image of a hurricane coiled to strike the Western Continent’s gulf coast of Cheves Province. High clouds, borne on a hundred-kiloretem-a-node jet stream, sphinctered together as they coursed diagonally across the observation viewpane before her. The crescent edge of the world studded with stars as the celestial bodies far beyond her home planet glimmered through the white vapor. Elsewhere in the endless vista of Space, a multitude of naked stars were burning in all their glory.

Dara’s attention refocused as her peripheral view caught a glimpse of her reflection coming off the window. A tall, powerful slender, fine-boned figure, with high cheekbones and penetrating chocolate eyes that gave a look of great delicacy founded in extraordinary resiliency framed by a neatly cropped mane told that she was no shallow youth, but a fully mature adult.

Her figure was snug inside a flight hibernation oversuit, firm and svelte. Her angular features were still unlined for all of her seventy-plus cycles; seventy had become the new fifty. An athletic siress of three, she well carried the biological rewards bestowed upon a terran female who had lived the majority of her life in a germ-free environment. A simple gene-booster treatment could have erased the silver salting of her pepper hued hair, but she elected to keep her hair natural. It served to remind those younger around her that she was of the generation that still valued the aging processes. Her image superimposed queerly over the world below like some omniscient goddess scrutinizing her patron planet for judgment or reward, although it was she who felt like the subject awaiting sentence.

A skilled practitioner of Space medicine, she had taken up a position here on Orbiter 1 after promotions within the ranks of the Aidennian-System Spacecorps. She had three children to her credit with her spouse, all of who had achieved success and recognition in their own chosen fields. A warm feeling pervaded her being as Dara thought of her clan, all together, all successful, and all about to embark on an adventure where survival would be a game with the life forces of the Unknown.

She and her clan, along with several other families, composed of scientists and terra‑forming specialists, were the leading figures in the Mira Probe Mission. The colonizing team was to conduct a manned landing on a new planet discovered by deep thrust telescopic probes. A distant star beyond the known limits of The System, scientists called Mira.

Pride should have been the only emotion she felt as she and the others awaited clearance to board the probeship AST Saarien docked to the Orbiter 1, yet the simple uncertainty of what lay ahead caused the feeling of fear to creep its destructive talons into her consciousness. Mira was a star light‑cycles from Aidennia and the colonized allies of The System. It was a remote and uncharted celestial object serving as a primary solar body to Mira‑IV, a planet‑sized satellite. Yet it had shown favorable evidence of supporting System life and ultimately, it might solve the current population explosion that was ringing throughout known Space.

Aidennia selected by The Echelon from the myriad of inhabited worlds to be the first planet to colonize the Unknown. Since Aidennia was the hub of The System’s peaceful administration, and the most technologically and spiritually advanced, the choice was obvious: Aidennia was to play the role of trailblazer.

Out of thousands of candidates, Dara Lidasiress and the other crewmembers selected and trained. Time seemed to have passed too quickly. She could not believe that the event was only moments away. Within heartbeats, she and those she had grown to know, love, and respect would be ushered off into deep Space. Spending the next three and a half months held in a state of suspended animation. Re‑awakening automatically as the Saarien entered Mira’s solar group.

Beyond the vapor of the Aidennia’s atmosphere, hung two attending satellites, each of their mass approximately one eightieth that of Aidennia. The two airless orbs housed mining teams, scientific communities, security bases, and industrial plants. Revolving around them were Orbiter stations staffed with medical and administrative personnel. Together, the Orbiters and the moon colonies formed an entire planetary support system and provided much of the research for the Mira Probe Mission. Dara grinned with some happiness knowing she and the others were doing a service for their race and its allies. Yet the sadness in departure remained. She drank in the sight of her siressworld one more time. She burned every cloud and land formation into her memory and made sure she would never forget the colors and the beauty of Aidennia.

Saying good‑bye had not been easy, especially to her elder sibling, Aspera. A native Aidennian, Dara was born the second daughter of Wilhelm Berlsire and Lida Maesiress. Dara’s siress was a brilliant neurologist while her sire was the founder and owner of Aero-Space Engineering Corporation, a large firm famous for its air-spacecraft navigation systems designs; she inherited the brilliance of her sire, and her capacity to heal from her siress. Her parents enrolled her in a private academy catering to the needs of gifted children. Dara had a normal childhood despite her obvious intelligence, good looks, and clan affluence.

That all changed shortly after her elder sister Aspera had graduated from an engineering lyceum in Bensalem Province, her parents were killed on re-entry from a moonbase business/pleasure trip when the shuttle they were on broke up due to faulty wiring and crashed. Aspera took over running Aero-Space Engineering Corporation and had become Dara’s only legal guardian; together they occupied the clan domicile on Aidennia. Dara continued with her education under the loving and watchful eye of her elder sister all the way through her acceptance, graduation, and subsequent enlistment in Spacecorps Medical.

Aspera Lidasiress, along with friends and business associates, were all supportive of the Mira Mission venture; yet there had been tears and sorrow at the departure. A sadness that had kept a small place in her heart now pulsed as Dara viewed Aidennia below.

As Orbiter 1 spun, its arc brought it directly over the planet’s Western Continent. Aidennia’s landmasses inhabited districts divided into territories governed as administrative population units. Seen from orbit, cities resembled toy villages in paperweights. Many of them had smaller domes all around their districts that had merged to become a kind of greater cityplex, covering almost one hundred and eighty degrees of a territory, with pistes interconnecting each vaulty bubble.

One cluster of development caught the physician’s eye. It was cosmopolis built entirely within a caldera, occupying the ground floor. A collection of forested parks, penthouse skyscrapers with arcuate balconies, glass elevators to rooftops with heliports, pistes, flying freeways …the entire crater covered in a city.

Dara could not help but to take one more look at her natal soil, Ashtangi Province. Stepping over to the observation window’s control panel, she tabbed in a few key commands.

Quickly a holographic-overlay eclipsed itself across the vast, blue, and shining, spinning globe of Aidennia. In the center of the picture, tucked between two gentle folds in a caldera landscape, were three massive domes covering a breathtaking panorama of city buildings; all the metropolises on Aidennia were domed, because at twenty-seven kilometers high the air was a tenth as thick (thirty or forty millibars) as it was at the datum – or sea level. The metropolis was vast, attested to by the data scrolling in columns alongside the main image. It sat just inside an outer ring of water, spread across an oblong plain covering a circle 43 mets by 18 mets (70 kr by 30 kr).

This was a densely populated area where the majority of the metroplexes population lived. Massed glass towers rose, some 102 floors high, almost to the transparent dome roofs, where landing pads for helicopters and aircars were located, giving residents a variety of alternative travel options.

Busy thoroughfares connected the towers. Small craft jetted about in the air. Boasting no crime, no pollution, and no over-crowding, Ashtangi Province was a veritable utopia, able to accommodate up to 3,332,000 people. It was a typical Aidennian metropolis. It provided residential apartments, guest accommodations, commercial offices, retail businesses, recreation and cultural areas, large cafeterias. It followed the planetary urban philosophy that represented and commemorated the victory of progress over stagnation, science over superstition, prosperity over depression, conservation over wastefulness, beauty over ugliness, serenity over tensions, enchantment over drabness, wealth over squalor, cleanliness over dirtiness, efficiency over inefficiency, success over failure, convenience over inconvenience, comfort over discomfort, security over insecurity, and happiness over unhappiness.

A network of monorails connected Ashtangi Province across the countryside. Beyond the city lay a fertile plain 330 mets (530 kr) long and 110 mets (190 kr) wide surrounded by another canal used to collect water from the rivers and streams of the mountains which soared to the skies and surrounded the plain to the north. An abundance of wild animals roamed the oblong plain famous for its various geysers, hot springs, and other geothermal features.

Lakes, rivers, and meadows dotted the mountains. Food supply for the province came from farms in the surrounding countryside just beyond the metroplexes circular highway, as well as greenhouses, fish tanks, and a meat-cloning center next to agrostations. Agrostations provided all kinds of herbs, fruits, and nuts. Every rotate, fresh produce, fish, and cloned meats where brought to the city kitchens from the greenhouses, fish farm, and cloning center. All food was cooked and eaten the same rotate it was brought in, this eliminated the need for canning, freezing, preservatives. It was a well-balanced, ecological synergism between land and urbanization.

It would be quite some time before Dara Lidasiress’ gentle eyes would see this sight again. She turned away, not wishing to view more she discontinued the 3-D close-up veil. As the observatory port cleared, she sat in a nearby sofa and rested her head meditatively in her hands.

ECHELON’S END BOOK 2: MAROONED

“Terra Nova”

CHAPTER ONE:

Dawn came to the crash site.

The pale primary sun burned away the morning chill and the clinging damp mist, revealing a gigantic silent world. The gunmetal sheen of sunrise bathed the craggy terrain where ancient waterways once cut their tortuous paths. Enormous outcrops of rock with bases forty retems in diameter rose two hundred retems overhead.

Curtains of gray moss-like vegetation hung down in a tangle from the upthrusted rocks; parasitic flowers sprouted from all along the stony trunks. At ground level, huge cacti, gleaming with moisture, grew higher than a male’s chest, and held the low ground fog. Here and there was a spot of color: red blossoms of deadly poison that only opened in the early morning sprouted forth from blue vines.

The Pioneer Pod 4 had careened onto a supercontinent that centered itself on the alien planet’s equator. It consisted of a million and a half square mets of silent, mysterious desert. This primeval area stood unchanged and unchallenged. The expanse of the dead zone remained inviolate with thousands of square mets.

The continentscape all over was a blighted land. Bits of it were dullish gray, bits of it dullish brown, the rest of it rather less interesting to look at. It was like a dried-out marsh, now barren of all sizeable vegetation and covered with a layer of dust and dark under the heavy weight of cloud.

Pioneer 4’s crash trajectory had brought the podship in from the western horizon, up from the planet’s southern pole through the supercontinent’s gulf. The providence in the angle of the podship’s northeastern descent in relation to the caldera’s meteor crater’s weathered western wall couldn’t have been a better land feature than if the whole depression had been built with a runway. The crash site’s caldera crater’s basin floor had been desiccated by an original meteor impact and subsequent volcanic eruptions, and now it consisted of about a kiloretem’s depth of lahar eolian sediment, underlain by a hard cake of brecciated rock, formed during the brief but stupendous pressures of the volcanic eruption that had blasted away the magma cone and left in its place a hollowed-out depression. These same pressures had also caused deep fracturing that had allowed unusually large amounts of outgassing from the interior of the planet. Volatiles from below had seeped up and cooled, and the water portion of the volatiles had pooled in liquid aquifers, and many zones of highly saturated subsoil.

Some sixteen mets southwest away laid the active volcanic mountain range the podship had just barely overflown during its crash dive. Crescent shaped, the range curved round the region in a jagged half-circle aglow with over seventeen active volcanoes; it was extremely rugged, with many of the lesser peaks steep and glaciated. The valleys were quite low, resulting in great local relief, and major passes resembling plateau country which extended north and east from the range’s terminus. Beyond the foothills was the crash site’s arid plateau that was created 16 million cycles ago as a coalescing series of layered flood basalt flows. Together, these sequences of fluid volcanic rock formed a 200,000 square mets (520,000 kr²) region out eastward. A major break in the landscape was in the form a gorge that exposed uplifted and warped layers of basalt from the plateau.

The air was clear and warm, almost sweltering within the caldera basin.

In the distance, expanding out on the caldera floor and beyond to the desertscape, gourd-like structures studded the horizontal line between land and sky. They were some fifteen stories high, standing on a matrix of root-like stilts. Their engorged trunks were filled with a spongy, water absorbing material. Overall the basic impression of the environs encompassing the crash site was of a vast, oversized, gray-yellow world — an alien, inhospitable place.

CHAPTER TWO:

Hard at work repairing the ship, the crew of the Pioneer 4 was forced to take off their uniforms. They longed for the air‑controlled comforts that were temporarily inoperative onboard the saucer. That made prioritizing the repair list relatively easy.

Major Nicraan Matasire took the common corridor that led to the aft section and Engineering. His footfalls echoed suddenly as he entered the spacious compartment of the podship’s engine room. He slowed as he reached the shielded hyperplasmic core. Its two bulbs of cleersteel that were joined by a narrow passage, through which a quantity of plasma and anti-matter usually ran, were now dormant; dual ionized tornadoes trapped in bottles now resembled simple rain clouds. The ever-present hrump of the hyperplasmic process was missing, leaving a vacuum in the anticipated sound envelope. This day, the bulbs merely glistened with potential energy like glitter waiting a kinetic stirring.

For the flight engineer, it was better than the alternative. At least there was enough power to keep the podship’s essential services running. But, even he knew there was a shortfall as they were fueled by the solar batteries. Each crewmember knew the star-powered cells couldn’t wholly keep the electrics operational for much longer —

The core’s catalytic cylinder lay exposed; its register was flashing Three-Quarter Power at its indicator marker. Commander Capel Perezsire stood staring at the displays. He knew the sight must be putting all the same thoughts into Matasire’s head that already filled his own; none of them optimistic.

“No good stories this rotate,” Capel said finally. Turning, he drifted on across the room, examining the internal systems indicator displays. “Artificial atmospheric controls are marginal,” he pointed to the appropriate report on the Computer Management control board. “It’s going to be hot in here this day.” He shifted position again, gesturing, “Thanks to Moela, the secondary and emergency systems are intact and functional. Gives us something to work with.” He shrugged, not making eye contact as he started back toward the core’s auxiliary control board. It was incorporated into the concentric railing corralling the hourglass reactor assembly.

Nicraan stepped over to the hyperplasmic core’s remote operations station and activated its command keys. At his request, the core’s status report manifested. A smile chiseled itself across his rugged countenance. The catalytic cylinder rotated back into its housing and the station’s reporting indicators went from red to green.

“I’ve got something good to tell,” Matasire said as he looked up from the instruments still grinning. “Looks like the ReGen programs were able to repair a microfracture in the core. I can initialize the station-keeping’s start up sequence.”

“Do so.”

Matasire took no time in activating the necessary sequences to begin the plasma/anti-matter intermixing with a great crack of thunderous light. Ozone seemed to blossom like fire in the air throughout the engine room. The atomic flare’s field initial discharge settled into a deep, steady glow. “We have minimal power for essential and auxiliary services,” he reported, still smiling. “We can take the secondary and emergency controls off-line and begin living off the main power systems.”

Activating the Administrative Tools instrumentation on the panel, the commander gained entry to the System Tools command protocols. It only took a few precise touches before the Event Viewer holographics came online. Standing at the console, Capel smiled in satisfaction as the Performance Logs And Alerts access holograms materialized in the air.

“The ReGen programs have repaired the preliminary access systems,” he smiled as the necessary holographic materialized in the air. “Let’s see if I can at least get the climate controls back to a more acceptable level.”

Matasire flanked the commander at the work-station just as the male gently guided the spinning Counter Logs And Trace Logs images onto the main monitor, where they were assimilated into the main engineering’s computer. He glanced at the functional percentile task bar, illuminated on the Device Manager screen, and saw its percentage increase again fractionally toward his goal of 50 percent.

Nicraan nodded at the data on the display, wondering if their luck had been just phenomenally good, or just on a specific timeline. “The programs were able to recover five hundred rads of radioactivity within the irradiated starter material,” he said, with actual enthusiasm in his voice. The grin that had started to form on his handsome face quickly faded as he added, “However, there is still a glitch in the firewall safeties in the electronic cross-bridges between the back-up systems and the main power relays. Looks like an external control issue.”

“Scavenger hunts were never my favorite game as a child,” Perezsire sighed, pushing off the remote console and walking away, starting back toward the main hatch again. “Let’s try main computer control … the defragmenter program should be finished by now.”

Matasire’s brisk footsteps closed with his as both males exited the Engineering compartment and took the corridor around its bend into the utility deck’s main area. Here were mounds of unfinished projects just waiting for completion.

The glide tube’s lift decelerated as it lowered, its containment bar slid open. Moela Darasiress stepped out onto the lower deck, her entry unnoticed. Ozone seemed to have blossomed like fire in the air throughout the utility deck. Disarray was everywhere around the deck-center autonomous regeneration dais; test equipment underfoot, service access panels open, viewing holoscreens disconnected, relays and servos whining, and an overload signal protesting with its nerve-jangling warning squealed. It was coming from the forward auxiliary control cabin where Commander Capel stood sweat-soaked in duty fatigues at a secondary command console alongside an assisting Nicraan Matasire.

Come on,” said Perezsire, cutting the alert. He was talking to an open computer panel in the auxiliary operations cabin for Pioneer 4, trying to coax the systems it controlled into working. “You can do it. I know you can.”

While the commander negotiated, Nicraan scanned the readout on the diagnostic device he’d taken out of an equipment case. Aiming it at the primary computer data core that now occupied the center floor like a scaffold island from where it had risen from its subdeck holding assembly, it was illuminated with blinks and flashes in response to Capel Perezsire’s machinations.

Getting the main computer systems back online would greatly increase their chances of survival. An instrument display on the exposed hard drive assembly flashed for an instant then returned to gray blankness.

Don’t give me a hard time, now,” the commander scolded as he tinkered. Nicraan kept judiciously out of the way as Perezsire activated the core instrumentation once again. In seeming response to his request, the computer panel responded. The data core followed in suit only heartbeats later. “There you go!” He turned to his colleague. “The primary computer database is on-line now. Give it a scan, Major.”

The data core framework’s innards settled into a steady glow; a weird, thrumming hum filled the once-silent air. Whatever sense of artificial intelligence coursed through the neuronics of the living ship swelled into life again. The crew’s lives and deaths, all wrapped up in one bioneurochemical package. Perezsire clenched one fist behind his back, a commander’s prayer. “What readings are you getting?”

Matasire made some adjustments to the device he held and took another look at its readout as it trilled. A couple of indicators flashed on the face of the instrument in the palm of his hand. “I’m registering thirty access lines to the central core now,” he said, then frowned, “but still no data.”

Perezsire cursed under his breath before thinking a moment and then reapplied himself to the open panel again. “Here, maybe this’ll do it.” After another moment of re-manipulating the fluidic circuitry, he turned back saying, “Scan it again.”

With a lopsided grin, the major did as he was instructed. A flat tone retorted that there was no improvement.

Nothing?” asked the commander.

Nothing yet,” Matasire correct.

To deck-left Moela saw Dara dressed in a damp tank top and tailored cargo pants in the podship’s Infirmary amidst a flurry of medical equipment checks. She had opened a maintenance access panel and was scanning the inner workings. The physician was barely paying attention to the goings-on around her; she was too wrapped up in her own thoughts.

Moela moved on.

Deck 2 was designed as a full service utility level. It contained all propulsion machinery, direct access to the EmDrive, hyperatomic supralight and hyperdrive systems, and all podship electronic controls in an engineering bay directly behind the retaining wall that the lift and rung ladder were fastened too. A fully equipped galley for food storage and preparation curved away on the deck’s starboard hull followed by the crew’s gymnasium that sided a series of storage lockers and rooms – one of which was the aero-hydroponics cabin. A three-point airlock system for the podship’s landing struts dotted the deck: two were fore on either side of the auxiliary control, one aft between Retho’s and Moela’s living units. Curving along the aft hull’s dormitory corridor was the accommodations section where the four functionally ergonomic staterooms were located. Pioneer 4’s complete service maintenance bay filled the lower deck’s port hull; here the podship’s all-terrain amphibious vehicle was garaged. Similar to the shuttle stowed in the upper deck’s portside hangar, the Landrover was intended to provide the Aidennians with mobility to explore for mapping topography, geology, soil, and water conditions prevailing for Pioneer 4’s colonization mission.

Located on the lower level between the auxiliary control center and the galley was a scientific experimentation and research workshop area. In its center adjoining the fore wall was a laboratory with built-in sink and waste disposal facilities. Seated amongst voltmeters, ammeters, resistance/capacitance substitution boxes, holo-microscopes, calipers, weight scales, other mechanical inspection instruments and chemicals for biological and chemical analysis, Retho and Lunon Capelsire slid time by on stocking feet. They were talking about their two favorite subjects: engineering and biology. For Lunon it was computers and for Retho it was bacteriorhodopsin. Even for Retho, computer-talk was relatively simple; but, for Lunon, the understanding of the nature of bacteriorhodopsin needed a little explaining.

“In the wild, bacteriorhodopsin is found spanning the membrane of a tiny, rod-shaped, flagellum-wielding bacterium called Halo bacterium. Halo bacterium and its family have survived for billions of cycles, in no small measure because of this strange protein in its cellular “skin”,” Retho instructed his younger sibling, motioning to the three-dimensional slide of purplish smudge before them both on the lower utility deck’s lab’s desk’s holo-top. The terminal provided the access they needed into the ship’s computers for data entry and analysis.

Within one of three biological incubation units located on the counter opposite the service corridor, Halo bacterium grew by the billions, living, and reproducing. Within twelve Petri dishes the cultures flourished, partly because of a pressure valve at the base of each incubation unit that permitted any gas or atmosphere to be introduced. Retho was simulating some of the harshest conditions their tiny lives could handle. The ‘daytime’ temperatures soared, the ‘nights’ were cold, and the water was ten times saltier than any seawater — enough to pickle most creatures.

Lunon grinned wryly. “My simple mind is boggled,” he said. “Please elucidate. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little slow on this stuff.” As Lunon apologized, his youthful face flushed with embarrassment.

“That’s fine, Lunon,” Retho laughed in good-humor, he touched a hand against the side of the lab’s computer terminal. “I operate a computer and don’t understand how it works.”

“Then we are even,” Lunon grinned, laughing outright. “I know the elementary stuff. I know that engineers in The System had been growing the supertolerant microbe in bulk, knowing it is a willing ally for enzyme and bioplastics manufacture, desalination, enhanced pollution recovery, and even disease-drug screening. Besides being tough to kill — even at one hundred noches H — it’s also full of strange engineering firsts, a brilliance born of adversity.”

“For one thing,” Moela’s voice filled the lab with its charming pitch and caused the two to look away from the purple glow before them and over a respective shoulder. She was attractively attired in a revealing halter-style regulation top; she obviously had been listening from outside the back of the lab’s syntheglass-encased bulkhead. “Halo bacterium can toggle from being a food consumer to being a food producer. When conditions are good it gathers food that other creatures produce, and metabolizes it, just as we do.”

“How?” Lunon inquired.

“Sometimes,” Retho interjected, “when oxygen levels in their shallow sea home dip and there is no way to oxidize, or burn up, food, Halo bacterium goes to Plan B. It assembles in its membrane a protein called bacteriorhodopsin that allows it to harness sunlight to make its own sugars.”

“This is great,” Lunon looked doubly puzzled, “but how does this help us?”

“Well,” Moela replied, moving fully into the lab and going to position herself against the lab’s workbench. As she leaned against its edge, she pointed to the 3-D computer-generated image of bacteriorhodopsin. “These seven helical columns that look like synthetic protein substrate curls stand in a ring around a light sensitive pigment called retinaldehyde, or retinal A.”

“Retinal A is a close relative of the compound in our eye that helps us to see in dim light. Nature is fond of reusing her winning designs in new ways,” Retho said. “In bacteriorhodopsin, Nature uses an eye pigment to pull down sunlight.”

“So you see,” Moela grinned with admiration lighting her face, “bacteriorhodopsin is both a photon harvester and a proton pump. It is also a smart material — whereas most pumps would slow down due to the “back-pressure” of protons on the outside of the membrane, it adjusts to keep pumping protons. We admirers of this intelligent molecule are like corporate spies trying to reverse-engineer a machine that is only fifty angstroms by fifty angstroms, or one five millionth of a nanoretems long.”

“Another of bacteriorhodopsin’s talents is its knee-jerk reaction to certain frequencies of light — this means you can use one color of light to kink it — recording one — and another color of light to unkink it — recording zero,” Retho touched the side of the computer terminal once again.

“Computer operations!” the young engineer almost fell off the lab stool he occupied beside Retho’s with realization. “You can use it for computer applications!”

Both older siblings cheered in unison, “Exactly!”

“And since we have holographic computers onboard the Pioneer, we can use this bacteriorhodopsin!”

“Yes,” Moela grinned, touching her sibling gently on his closest shoulder. “You’re getting it.”

Lunon slouched and grinned sheepishly. “Not really.”

Retho giggled in sympathy. Taking a side-look at a bulkhead chronometer, he said as he slipped on his workboots, “That’s fine. Moela, could you explain? I have some work to do in the hydroponics garden, and BeeTee is waiting for me. I’m afraid it’ll melt if it waits any longer in that heat up there.”

“I know. I just left it after helping to assemble the water conversion unit.” Moela moved to sit on the stool Retho was occupying as the scientist made an exit from the lab and toward the stair-rungs beyond. “In the case of optical protein computing, the working surface of a computer disk would be covered with bacteriorhodopsin packed shoulder to shoulder. The read/write heads would be red and green laser beams, which, when aimed at specific “addresses” on the drive, would kink and unkink molecules, storing ones and zeros and then reading them out. An optical detector would measure whether or not light has been absorbed at each site. To keep from erasing information during the reading process, a second pulse of light would follow the red light to reset the flipped bacteriorhodopsin. It takes bacteriorhodopsin only five trillionths of a nanonode to change absorption states. Give it a nanonode, and it’ll kink and unkink two thousand times.”

Lunon nodded. “So, since most of the tripolymer coating has been stripped from our computer hardware’s optical chips, Retho and you are manufacturing new coating to bring the ship’s main systems back on-line.”

Moela ran a hand through Lunon’s damp, tousled curls as she smiled. “Yes. We can fit trillions of bacteriorhodopsin molecules on a computer chip the size of a sugar cube.”

“Well, if you’re going to need holograms to utilize these ‘sugar cubes’,” Lunon touched his sister warmly on her nearest shoulder, “we’ll be needing micro-Fourier lenses. I’d better get about re-aligning them through the ship’s computer relaying mainframe.”

“That’s why Retho brought you here in the first place. But, before you could do all of that work, he wanted you to understand the method behind the madness.”

Lunon giggled. “Madness understood, Mentor. I best be off and see if we can get the ship’s vital life support systems back up to specs.”

“Like climate control,” Moela smiled, running the back of a hand against her moist forehead.

Lunon nodded as he exhaled uncomfortably. “Especially climate control.”

CHAPTER THREE:

The Aidennian survivors had been on the new planet for just under a month, and already they had established a small base camp. West was the only direction in which they could clearly see for any distance; to the north, south, and east, the view was blocked by towering summits ringing the crash site like the walls of a monstrous amphitheater.

The actual crash site was in a meteor crater resembling a worn-down molar on a fan-shaped lava flow depression covered in retems of sand and grit extending for more than a hundred kiloretems down the northeast flank of the eastern volcanic mountains. The meteor crater was the only real blemish in what was otherwise a flawlessly circular summit cone and caldera, and clearly it had come very late in the volcano’s history of eruptions. Standing down in the depression, one’s view of the rest of the summit was cut off – it was like being in a shallow hanging valley, with little visible in any direction, except the west – until one walked out to the drop-off at the crater rim’s edge, and saw the huge cylinder of the caldera coring the planet, and on the far flow rim were volcanoes, looking like a skyline over forty kiloretems away.

Immediately surrounding the grounded Pioneer Four were portable shelters for observation and experimentation purposes containing computer terminals that provided access to the podship’s computers for data entry and analysis, a small outdoor galley complete with conventional pots and pans used with a miniature four burner electric stove that also contained a high-intensity overhead heat lamp for additional warming; all were powered from a portable fuel cell – a portable sonic dishwasher cleaned and sanitized all utensils, a small farm including a hydroponics garden from which onboard recyclers provided replenishment of nutrient supplies, a cartable compact fully programmable clothing synthesis unit manufactured replacement uniforms while the main clothing fabricators remained offline and an electronic dry cleaning unit cleaned and folded the clothes, and a perimeter defense bunker just like the podship that was stocked with a variety of offensive and defensive weapons including a close perimeter force field – a capable system that could be controlled from the main tactical console on the flight deck and/or a more-powerful projector that could protect the campsite up to a range of one hundred retems.