Date: 432nd Year of
Emperor Valek Foger XXVI
A week after Matty was stung by the shrolg, the ship’s computer woke Vaughn from his nap in his seat in the galley. Her soft, silky voice came from everywhere and nowhere. “Sir, we are nearing Vaughnville.”
Vaughn sat up in his berth and scrubbed his fingers through his long, dirty hair before wiping the sleep from the inside corners of his eyes. The transport captain cleared his voice and spoke out loud, “Halle, drop us out of the fold. I’ll come up and pilot the approach. Vaughnville? Really?”
“You’ve lived there for fifteen years, Captain. It needs a name.”
“I know. But Vaughnland? You make me out to be quite the egotist.”
“Perhaps something historic then? The name of the earliest Earth settlement in my memory is Sharonton. There was also an earth city called Duluth, and one called Red River Falls. Queen Willa the Great was from Red River Falls.”
“I remember history classes, Halle. Sharonton? I like it. How about New Sharonton?”
Instinctively, Vaughn reached out and grabbed the railing high along the wall. The entire ship shuddered as Halle unfolded space around the bubble containing the ship.
“Argimonium levels at eighty percent. Approaching New Sharonton at one quarter light.”
“Slow us to approach speed. How is the field looking?” He asked, letting go of the railing and swinging his legs off his seat and into his boots on the steel flooring. Every floor of the ship was metal. If the gravity generators failed, he could slip magnetic soles into his boots and still be able to maneuver around the ship.
“Magnetic field strength around New Sharonton is forty one percent above operational parameters. Full systems shutdown will be required during ionosphere re-entry.” That magnetic field was the reason Vaughn Troupe had chosen this particular moon to call home. It kept the E’Clei sensors from detecting the argimonium fields on the moon, and that kept his family safe. The field was caused by the gravitational interplay between the iron core of the moon Vaughn called “home” and the massive gas giant it revolved around.
When the system’s sun and his moon’s gas giant were in alignment, the tidal swell was enough to bring the ocean to his doorstep. At low tide, the ocean was almost forty miles away across a massive salt flat.
Vaughn sat down in the captain’s chair and punched a series of buttons on the arm rest. Three virtual screens appeared in the air in front of him. The far left showed the optimal approach path and his ship’s trajectory. The far right was the tactical screen, weapons systems and sensors. The middle screen had his focus at the moment, it was the flight controls. He adjusted speed and attitude, pitched over and started the descent.
“Halle, full shutdown. All controls to manual.”
“Yes Sir. Have a safe landing, Vaughn.”
“Thanks, Halle. Have a nice nap.”
Seconds later, the projections disappeared and the cover of the dash rolled back to reveal a large ball and dozens of buttons and levers. He put one hand on top of the sphere, and rolled it back and forth. Thrusters fired from the left and right side. He pushed the levers back and felt the drive thruster spin up. A huge ball of blue flame shot out the back of the ship, which lurched forward and nosed over towards the surface of the moon.
Manual reentry was always a thrill for Vaughn. As the air thickened outside the ship, the hull heated, causing it to expand. Tings, pops, creaks and groans sounded off all throughout the aging ship. “Come on baby, hold together for me,” he whispered.
Halle was a great ship. Just after the Battle of Bruth, Vaughn had found her floating in space, lifeless, not a soul aboard. He ordered her dragged into his cargo bay of his independence class warship, and there she sat, waiting. He spent most of his off time working on her.
This ship had started its life as a short range intra-stellar fighter for the Fogerian Empire, but Vaughn had other plans for a second life. He installed her AI, renamed her Halle, and every hour he wasn’t on the bridge, he spent inside Halle dreaming of the life he’d have afterward. A second life for both Vaughn and Halle, exploring deep space with his wife and the son he hadn’t yet met in person.
Folding space required a massive amount of computing power. Without the exact calculation, a ship could end up millions of light years from its target destination. Even with the most up to date star charts in the Fogerian Empire, a captain who was a million light years off course could spend months or even years trying to figure out where they were and which way they should go.
Throughout the war Vaughn requisitioned computer parts as replacements or spares for his battle ship, The Reetus. High Command didn’t complain about the extra parts, they considered them an investment. All the improvements Vaughn made to his battleship’s navigational computers benefitted the entire fleet. He never told them that he used all of those improvements in Halle’s core, let alone that she was the reason he was ordering all those parts.
As far as his superiors knew, he blew out a processor testing improvements to his own ship. Halle could compute coordinates in a fraction of a second that took the E’Clei an hour to compile. She was designed to function in deep space; Vaughn wanted to expand The Empire’s star charts. He wanted to find a sector of space where there were no E’Clei. No threat of the microscopic parasites invading his brain, killing everything that made him unique and wearing his corpse like a suit.
Sitting in the completely redesigned cockpit of his ship, Vaughn pushed the throttle and rolled the thruster control sphere forward. He reached up and hit several buttons on the ceiling, causing the ship to roll again until Vaughn was facing straight up in the captain’s chair. Another button activated the Cockpit Angle Servos. A regular Interceptor class ship was a long, skinny tube, pointed at one end with four massive engines at the other. Interceptors were capable of landing on the surface, the housing around the four massive engines served as landing gear, but the vehicle was primarily designed to stay in space. Halle was built to dock with a larger ship or space station; the crew would then take a shuttle to the surface. In her previous life, she was a space faring war-bird, but now she’d been repurposed for long-range exploration. Vaughn wanted to be able to live in the ship while she was on the surface of a planet.
Vaughn fired the landing thrusters, slowing the ship through the upper atmosphere, before reaching up to the ceiling once again to restart Halle.
“Nicely done, Captain. Shall I take over?”
“Take me home, Halle,” Vaughn said, unbuckling his harness. He walked down the hall toward the cargo hold where he had a month’s worth of supplies strapped down and waited until the ship touched down to open the door. He bounded out of the ship and crossed the hundred meter landing pad in three steps. The half gravity of his home was familiar to him. These days he was much more graceful than when he’d first arrived, although back then, he’d only had one leg.
The surface of New Sharonton was something of a kaleidoscope. The land shifted with the tides twice a day. Often, entire hills would move several meters. There was almost no vegetation on this part of the planet but on the opposite side, there were massive rainforests with trees over a thousand meters tall. They were so tall that the tops peeked above the ever-present clouds. The purple leaves gathered sun while the lower leaves soaked up moisture and released oxygen.
Vaughn looked out across the sandy planes. The sky was blue between the clouds, which created massive shadows rolling across the salt-flat to the south. His house was built just on the far side of the dunes at the edge of the massive salty desert. Twice a day, ocean water covered the desert in water, and for an hour or so at high tide, Vaughn had an oceanfront home.
At the edge of the landing pad, he expected his son Matt to be waiting for him. Matt always greeted Vaughn when he returned. Sarah sometimes came, but his son never missed a trip.
“Halle,” Vaughn said aloud, the chip in his ear connecting him with his ship. “Scan the area. Where’s Matt?”
“Sir, there are no life-signs in the immediate area. Perhaps he’s gone hunting again?”
“Where’s Sarah? Widen the search.”
“Ionospheric interference is keeping me from accessing my satellites, Vaughn. Would you like me to launch probes?”
Something wasn’t right. He was home right on time. They should be here. “Not just yet, Halle,” he said, leaping towards his home. He bounded up a large hill in one push off his artificial leg and tripped over a body in a white robe.
Now panicked, he rolled to his feet and jumped again and again towards his home, over hundreds of bodies. They all looked the same.
“Halle,” he started, out of breath in the thin atmosphere. “Dead, bald men in white robes. Gold “M” on their foreheads. Who are they?”
“Searching, Vaughn.” Seconds passed as he neared his home. “Their description matches those of Maxist priests. An ancient religion, The Maxists believe that a boy named Max was a god sent to Earth in the earth year 2010 to save Humanity from the E’Clei. The religion believes that Max will return and provide a safe place for all of Human kind. You know the name as the consortium that controls the vast majority of the argimonium in the galaxy.”
“How many years have they been waiting?”
“Unknown. It is rumored that Max was a mutated Human immune to the E’Clei parasites, who developed special abilities from their attempted infection.”
“Why would they be here?”
“Also unknown. I could create suppositions, but there are seven million three hundred thousand six hundred forty two possible reasons there could be dead Maxists on your moon. The probability of any of them being true is nearly six billion to one. The most likely is that they were monitoring your argimonium production, although they have no history of being involved in production.”
“Just tell me you have nothing,” he said, running.
“I have nothing, Vaughn. I suggest launching the probes.”
Desperation crept into Vaughn’s voice. These Maxists all had plasma burns. He’d seen these wounds before. They were from E’Clei weapons. “Launch them. Find Matty and Sarah.”
Vaughn reached his house, a solitary circle of green in a vast desert. The grass was perfectly manicured. Plants grew up under the windows, and a single tree, planted in the front yard had a swing hanging from one of the limbs, all surrounded by a white picket fence.
The house itself was a replica of an ancient earth home. When Vaughn was a child, his parents told him stories of Earth and how the E’Clei had come dozens of times over tens of thousands of years in an attempt to take over the planet before it was destroyed in The Colcoa War. Not much information survived the war, but Vaughn’s home planet was ravaged and then destroyed by the E’Clei. Less than a thousand Humans, led by Queen Willa the Great managed to survive the destruction of the planet.
Vaughn had built this house as a tribute to his ancestors, a small outpost of Humanity in a universe where his people had no real home. The front door was knocked off its hinges. Just inside the door, Sarah was laying on her back, clutching a communications link in one hand and an ionic pulse gun in the other. “Matty! Matt! Come out! I’m home!” he shouted. There wasn’t a sound in the house as he knelt to check Sarah for a pulse. She was cold.
“Vaughn,” Halle said in his ear. “The corpses are between twelve and fourteen hours old. Sensors are expanded out twice as far as Matthew could have travelled in that time. There are no Humanoid life-signs. I will continue the search.”
“Matty!” Vaughn called, grabbing the IP gun from Sarah’s hand and placing it gently on her chest. “Matty! Where are you!” He ran through the small house, searching every room. He checked every closet, under the beds, everywhere someone could hide. There was no sign of his son.
“Captain, Matthew is not on New Sharonton. I have scanned all of the bodies. His is not here. Heat trapped in the concrete of the launch pad indicates a ship left between eight and ten hours ago.”
Feeling utterly lost, Vaughn sat down on Matt’s bed, buried his face in his hands, and wept. Sarah was dead, his son was gone. And the E’Clei were to blame for it. All of years he spent being careful and trying to stay off of the radar had been for nothing. None of it made any sense.
After several hours, Vaughn headed towards the mine, fired up the excavator and dug two holes. He dug the first right beside the house, just big enough for Sarah. The other much more massive hole was over the hill behind the house. He was sewing Sarah into her favorite sheet when Halle spoke in his ear. “Captain, I have completed an exhaustive search of the entire moon, including sub-surface scans. There is no sign of Matthew on the planet. The plasma burns on the dead Maxists indicate E’Clei involvement, although there is a twenty seven percent chance that is a ruse. Footprint analysis indicates Romjini E’Clei.”
“How quickly can you get to Romjin?” Vaughn knew the planet, although he’d never been there. Part of his duty as captain of The Reetus was to know every E’Clei stronghold, even those on the farthest side of E’Clei space.
“Forty-Seven hours, sir. The Romjini ship would take nearly sixty to make the trip.”
“Halle, you’re not outfitted for war anymore. And what if they didn’t go to Romjin?”
“It is among the least likely places they would take him, Sir, but I calculated a ninety-seven percent chance that your follow up question would be to ask the time it would take them to travel there.”
Vaughn stitched Sarah the rest of the way up, and lifted her up on to his broad shoulders. Talking to Halle and creating a plan of what to do next helped him process his emotions. Being able to take the time to put Sarah to rest allowed him to deal with his grief. As he walked, he asked, “Where did they take him?”
“Statistically, based on seven hundred eighty thousand known E’Clei tactics, they would have taken him directly to E’Clei.” Vaughn’s heart sank. The most defended planet in the known universe. No Fogerian soldier had ever gotten within two light years of E’Clei. Not even spies implanted with genetically engineered parasites had ever returned.
The Fogerians were the most advanced race in the universe, other than the E’Clei, who only needed infect a handful of people of any race to have all the knowledge of that species. The E’Clei were technologically superior and when they killed an enemy, that enemy became one of them.
The Fogerian War ended in a drawdown of hostilities. The people of Foger said it was because they had done so much damage to the bugs, but Vaughn thought differently. Vaughn knew the E’Clei would never give up; instead they just altered their priorities. There were hundreds of trillions of habitable worlds in the universe, and billions of species. The E’Clei had conquered thousands of them, but as his mother used to say, “There were other fish in the sea.”
With Sarah buried in her garden beside the house, Vaughn started loading the Maxists into the bucket of the loader and dumping them into the massive grave. He thought best when he was busy, somehow physical labor always made his brain function better.
As he filled in the dirt, the thought struck him. He ran towards the house and grabbed the communicator Sarah had been holding.
“Halle, find the frequency of this comm. Adjust for the Doppler effect of the signal bouncing off the magnetic field. Find the last signal and amplify it.”
“Calculating… I’ve found it sir. Would you like to hear it?”
“Yes!” he shouted, and then static filled his ear. Just under it he could hear the occasional note of Sarah’s voice.
“Filter out the static. Rebuild the signal based on Sarah’s speech patterns,” he commanded.
Slowly, the static disappeared out of the sound in his ear, until all that was left were a few sounds of Sarah’s voice. Just syllables and single letter sounds.
“I’ve analyzed all recordings of Sarah’s voice in my database. Applying suspected patches now. I’m afraid it doesn’t make much sense, sir.”
“Vaughn. T.. Avenue. Flat. Romain.”
“Factor in that she was under attack, and The Maxists being here. She had to have been under extreme stress,” the Captain said.
Sarah’s voice changed again in his ear. “Vaughn. They have Matt. Low eighty…” Sarah’s voice was cut off by Halle. “Sir, I cannot guess the number. From her inflection, there was more than eighty. Probability indicates she was telling you how many Humanoids had Matt.”
“Her mind didn’t work that way, Halle. Sarah isn’t a soldier. Enemy combatants wouldn’t matter to her.”
“Recalculating with additional parameters.”
Sarah’s voice again appeared in Vaughn’s ear and he had to choke back tears as she spoke. “They have Matt. Low eighty. Ours.”
“You’re a god damned genius, Halle! They’ve taken Matty to Loe. We have eighty-something hours to meet them there. Calculate the fold. Warm up the engines, we’re taking off.”
“Sir. I’m a computer, I do not have intelligence as you would categorize it.”
“Shut up and do the math,” Vaughn yelled over the noise of the loader he was riding towards his space dock. He climbed up the ramp into his ship and hit the button to close the cargo hatch. “How long?”
“Five hours, thirty four minutes.”
“Recall the probes.”
“They’re on their way back. Six minutes to planetary probe docking.”
“Organize the satellites, Halle. We’re going to pick them up too. We have less than four days and we need to make a stop on the way.” Vaughn’s boots clanked on the metal catwalk that led up to the galley.
“She won’t be happy to see you, Sir,” Halle said.
“I can’t get my son back without her,” Vaughn replied, buckling himself into the captain’s chair.
“I’ve adjusted our course. Four hours to the Foger home-world. I suggest you get some sleep once we get past the field.”
“Too much to do.” Vaughn piloted the ship through the magnetic field for the second time that day before turning Halle back on and heading towards the back of the ship.
“All six satellites are recaptured and safely stowed. Brace yourself for the fold.” Vaughn grabbed on to the railing in the cargo hold. He heard the familiar sound of the Alcubierre field generators winding up, and then the ship rattled and shook as it rocketed off down the wormhole created between the two layers of folded space-time.
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