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  1. #1

    Shadows in the Rift - Prologue

    Serabrov Terminal look shabby and ill maintained from the outside and looks, in this case, are not deceptive. This system should be a beacon of prosperity for the whole sector from the exploitation of the mineral resources in its extensive ring systems, indeed the Federation had once built a city on the planet below to service the mining boom it confidently anticipated. Then the pirates had moved in. The Purple Partnership and Dominion League had made the system so ungovernable that whichever bean counter in his comfortable office on Mars made these decisions concluded that even exclusive rights to the systems considerable resources did not make a pacification operation cost effective and so HR 6421 and all its potential riches had been left to the criminals and any others brave or desperate enough to brave them. All of which had also made HR 6421 the perfect base for the fledgling Children of Raxxla, close enough to the core to keep an eye on the endless machinations of the galactic powers while far enough away to avoid attracting attention, the pirate infestation also helped keep any prying eyes well away from the growing but secretive organisation, and grow they had. Helped by their leaders wealth and the efforts of their pilots the Children had gained control of Serabrov Terminal, and had made it if not always a pleasant place then at least a safe one. Times though were changing, and the capture of their leader had forced this group of explorers and mystery chasers to take more direct action, thus the Children's recent exploits in Cemiess and Eotienses had begun to attract the attention of the powerful, the kind of attention that would not be put off by a system infested with pirates.

    "To what do I owe the honour of a visit from one of our illustrious consuls?" A hard looking man in a red suit that was garish even by Imperial standards. Wilbur Bernard was indeed a hard man, he was also that rarest of creatures from the Empire in being a self made one. A miner by trade he had made his fortune in the Prism system, digging Tantalum, always working the most dangerous seams for the purest ore and the richest yields, his business had grown until he lost it all when insurgents had briefly seized the system but worked his way back up following Lady Kahina Loren's reclamation, only to lose everything once more in the chaos following Kahina's disappearance when his mining contracts were 'acquired' by some aristocratic crony of Denton Patreus. Thanks to his mining knowledge and ability to get things done Salomé had appointed him to manage the Children's activities in this system with the priority of keeping the ore flowing for whatever project she was working on, which now made Wilbur Bernard the governor of this station, which in turn with Salomé currently in an Imperial prison made him arguably the most powerful man in the Children of Raxxla. I half smiled at his attempts to affect airs and graces as he made great play of sampling his wine, his craggy face and shaven head combined with his tattooed neck and gaudy clothing to give him the look of a gangster rather than an administrator. Only a fool though underestimated either his intellect or his decency.

    "I thought I'd drop in for a bit, been away too long." I replied sampling my own wine which was excellent, one of the advantages of having the LOSP for near neighbours was a plentiful supply of first class wines.

    Wilbur laughed loudly, seeing right through me. "Who've you pissed off this time?" He asked between guffaws.

    "Ever heard of an Admiral Sleer?"

    "Can't say as I 'ave. Fed?"


    "Don't do things by halves do you lad?"

    "There's more to it than that, she tried to capture me because I'm one of us, she thinks I know something. Any idea why a Federation Admiral is targeting us?"

    Wilbur's brows knitted, his craggy face looking both thoughtful and concerned. "Erimus is going to brief the other consul's in the next day or so but as you're here you may as well know; we've got a lead on the Rift, the Gap and Conflux too as it 'appens and whatever's out there the Feds don't want us finding it. 'Appen this Sleer thought you'd know what we've got."

    I chewed my steak thoughtfully. "So what have we got?"

    "Three system names, one in each area. Don't ask me what's there or 'ow we got em, I'm just a miner that stuff's for you flyboys but we think there's something there and whatever it is the Feds don't want it found."

  2. #2
    Consul Jellicoe's Avatar
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    Jan 2017
    Part I

    "The Formidine Rift, Conflux and Hawkins Gap." Erimus summed up his briefing. "We know of one system in each as a starting point so begin your searches at the points given and spread out up to a hundred light years from each. We don't know what we're looking for but we are certain that there is something out there."

    "How reliable is our source?" Zenith asked.

    "Very reliable." Erimus replied. "It's never let us down before and the fact that the Federation are going to so much trouble to stop us only adds to its credibility."

    "That's a vast search area." a man known only as The Tick put in. "There's no way we can cover it all."

    "No we can't." Erimus agreed. "So we're going to appeal to any independent explorers who are willing to help, Wilber's agreed to use some of our mining profits to pay a bonus to anyone selling their data at Serabrov." There were murmurs of surprise around the virtual table; for the hard nosed Wilber Bernard to agree to such a potentially massive pay out the stakes must be high indeed. "The trouble is the Federation are doing the same, and they've got deeper pockets than we have but if they beat us to it then whatever's out there will be buried, possibly for ever."

    "Can we expect any hostile action from Federation ships out there?" I asked.

    "As far as we know they've just appealed for independents to sell them their data the same way we have, but we can't rule out a naval deployment or some overzealous Fed pulling the trigger. I know going up against the Federation is difficult for you Jellicoe so as you're not really an explorer anyway if you want to help Wilber keep things going here I'm sure we'll all understand."

    I gave a snort. "Now I know how a lot of us felt in Cemiess. I'm in." Once, not so long ago I would never have moved against the Federation, but after a full admiral had used her authority to try to have me kidnapped my loyalties had weakened. I told myself that Sleer was just a single loose cannon, a rogue element and not at all representative but deep down I think I knew that was not the case. The Federation was changing, or maybe I was just looking more closely, either way a dark underbelly was becoming ever more apparent, and it had to be fought.

    "If you're planning a trip to the Rift then the Resolution's no good, not unless you want to die of old age on the way." Claude stated the blindingly obvious as though no one else had given it a thought after I had explained the situation to my crew.

    "Pick up an Asp?" Mira suggested. "Fit one out properly they'll do thirty light years easily, more if you get your friend Elvira to tune up the Frame Shift." I was a little surprised at the hostility in Mira's voice when she mentioned Elvira Martuuk.

    "We don't need a new ship." I said. "The good old Warspite's been gathering dust in Ra since we got back from the Pegasai, we get her fitted out let Elvira do her stuff and head out there."

    "Explorer fitted Anaconda." Vik said thoughtfully. "Might even get a longer range than an Asp."

    "We won't be taking an explorer fit though." I said. "We'll have to dump the armour but I want to be prepared for anything we might find out there."

    I got just over twenty six light years, not much by the standards of most exploration ships but other than ditching our armour I was unwilling to reduce our combat effectiveness should anything be waiting out there, whatever that something may be.

    There are people who love exploration, who devote their lives to scouring the void for the new and unknown and I can see why; the peace, the sense of freedom, the wonder of creation, the knowledge that no other eyes have ever seen what you are seeing nor ever will again, the feeling of setting your ship down on a planet no human foot has ever trodden before. All these things are wondrous and awe inspiring yet I do not think i could ever join their ranks, too much time with nothing to eat but ship rations is not for me, and even the biggest ship becomes claustrophobic in time. I would miss the bubble both for its comforts and its bustle, but also for its politics and its scheming which repel yet entice in equal measure.

    We made good progress, the giant scoop meaning we could re-fuel as we went, rarely having to stop to fill the tanks. A strict coms blackout was observed so we had no idea what awaited us, though the fact we had picked up no distress signals reassured me that there was no immediate danger at our destination. We passed through the Heart and Soul nebula, and I would have loved to have spent some time just taking in its beauty but our mission left little time for sightseeing and so, over ten thousand light years from Earth, we jumped into our target system and I heard Claude trigger the discovery scanner. I am not sure quite what I had expected, but when Claude spoke it took me completely by surprise.

    "Skipper I'm picking up a coms beacon close to the star. It looks like it's of human origin."

  3. #3
    Consul Jellicoe's Avatar
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    Jan 2017
    Part II

    "I'm picking up a comms beacon close to the star. It looks like it's of human origin." Claude announced in this unknown system, half the galaxy from home.

    "Yes I see it." I replied checking my own scanner display. "What makes you so sure it's human?"

    "Because if it wasn't it would show up as an unknown signal, if we could pick it up at all." Claude answered what I realised was a stupid question as soon as the words were out of my mouth as though he were a teacher trying to educate a particularly obtuse pupil.

    "How the blazes did it get out here?" I wondered aloud.

    "The other possibility," Claude continued thoughtfully, ignoring my question, " is that it is not of human origin but whoever put it here did so to give us a message."

    "Such as?" I asked.

    "Stay away perhaps? The Formidine Rift, formidine means fear in one of the ancient languages; the rift of fear - there has to be a reason for that name, perhaps we are trespassing somewhere that would be best left well alone?"

    "Whoever put it there we need to see it." I said setting course for the mysterious signal."

    We jumped back into normal space and closed on the signal. A large, tubular structure that dwarfed our Anaconda hoved slowly into view, bristling with coms arrays and sprouting two vast sail like solar panel wings.

    "Stay sharp." I ordered. "Something that big might have defence systems. It certainly looks manmade."

    "It's got power." Claude said from his scanners. "No sign of any weapons. Definitely human, there are near identical ones in the bubble."

    "Any signals?" I asked.

    "Not yet. If it's like the ones back in K Space it'll broadcast at set times, we just have to wait."

    "How long has it been here?" Vik asked from tactical.

    "Impossible to say, the tech these things use hasn't changed in a long time, it must be recent though there's no way they'd have got something that size this far out before Frame Shift technology."

    "Federation?" I queried.

    "No way of knowing, the tech is very uniform, that would be my guess tho... hold on it's broadcasting." Claude turned back to his instruments. "Hmmm it's some kind of code."

    "Can you crack it?"

    "I'm not sure, probably not with what I have on the ship if it's a high sec one."

    "Alright see what you can do, if we have to we can send it back to base and see if they can make anything of it."

    "We are supposed to be observing a coms blackout." Vik put in.

    "I know but we won't be the only ones trying to crack it and whatever that message is it's got to be very important to this mission, I think that's worth breaking a coms blackout for."

    "Ship jumping in skipper." Vik interrupted. "Anaconda class, heading right for us."

    "Ship scan detected." The computer announced.

    "Full power to shields." I ordered just in case somebody had travelled over ten thousand light years to pick a fight.

    "Deploy weapons?" Vik asked.

    "Not yet, scan him though."

    "Pavel Orson, combat rating master, pledged to Zachary Hudson." Vik ran through adding the strange pilots allegiance with concern. "He's deployed hard points." I checked the range, still over five kilometres but closing fast. "Looks like an exploration fit, no boosters or cell banks"

    "Weapons?" Claude asked.

    "Pulse lasers and a multi-cannon, can't tell how powerful.

    "Well he should have had a good enough look at us to see we're better prepared for a fight, let's hope that encourages him to be reasonable. Mira ready the alert fighter, be ready to launch on my order."

    The strange ship came closer, apparently ignoring the beacon until coming to a halt at a distance of a couple of hundred metres, hard points deployed and pointing straight at us, not firing, not speaking just starting at us. The tension on the bridge was palpable, everyone knew the only outcome for the losers of a battle out here so far from home.

    "Deploy hard points and launch fighter" I ordered. "Let's see if that makes him want to talk." Another thirty long seconds passed, every one seeming more like an hour. "Mira make a couple of close passes of his bridge."

    "Roger that Commander."

    "Hold on a moment Rogue Leader, stand by." I countermanded my order as I heard the ping of an incoming coms request and looked at Claude.

    "He's hailing us, I presume you want it putting through?" I nodded and the hologram of a man in his early middle years, his high forehead showed a hairline beginning to recede beyond his ability to hide it shimmered into view, his immaculate, bespoke purple and white flight suit suggesting a degree of vanity and fastidiousness as well as considerable wealth.

    "Commander Jellicoe." he greeted me brusquely .

    "Commander Orson." I acknowledged him.

    "Exactly what are you doing out here commander?" He asked.

    "The same thing you are I would imagine." I languidly drawled in the face of his abruptness.

    "Who do you plan to sell your data to?" His manner continued to border on the outright rude.

    "I'm not sure how that's any business of yours."

    "The Federation needs your data citizen." He must have picked up on my accent. "If there is anything out here then the human race can't risk it being found by a bunch of terrorist dreamers led by a convicted killer."

    "You make a very good point Commander, I'll be sure to bear it in mind."

    "See that you do Commander, there's a lot at stake here." He abruptly cut the conversation off.

    "Think he'll check us out?" Vik asked.

    "Possibly, so we must assume so." I replied pointing the ship towards open space and triggering the Frame Shift Drive.

    "What now?" Vik said.

    "We have a good look over this system while Claude works on that code." I began our exploration of the system, i planned to be methodical, scan every body in the system while looking for any signal sources in deep space and if that yielded nothing move in for a closer look at the planets themselves. It would cost us valuable time but my feeling was that the beacon was unlikely to be the only secret this system held. I had just completed our survey of the inner planets and was halfway out to the more distant worlds when Claude's voice came through on the coms net.

    "Skipper you need to see this, I think I've cracked the code."

  4. #4
    Consul Jellicoe's Avatar
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    Jan 2017
    Part III

    I dropped out of Frame Shift and opened the throttle, obsessively checking my scanner until I was certain our exit cloud had collapsed and I had put an appreciable distance between us and it. The chances of there even being anyone to follow us out here, so close to the edge of the galaxy were vanishingly small, but old habits are hard to set aside and our encounter with Commander Orson had persuaded me not to take any chances. I left the bridge regretting I had not had the time to recruit at least one more watch to replace the naval personnel I had lost in Solati and joined the others in the briefing room.

    I found Vik, Mira and Harry Soames sat around the rooms central table above which was a holographic map of the inner system. In the briefing officers chair was Claude, I had expected his long, sharp face to be wearing its customary look of self satisfaction at having cracked the code but instead his visage was a picture of confused doubt as he still pored over his terminal.

    "You've got it then?" I asked.

    "Yes I think so." He replied dubiously.


    "Assuming I've got it right, and I can't see how I can be wrong on this I've run the decryption a dozen times."

    "What's the problem then?" I pressed.

    "The problem is that if I'm right it means that the beacon is broadcasting in a code that's several decades old."

    "They're using an old code to confuse people?" Mira asked uncertainly.

    "It doesn't work like that." Claude said tetchily. "Once a code is broken once it's useless, someone uploads it to the grid and anyone can read it, that code hasn't been used in over twenty years, they might as well have broadcast it in clear it took the computer seconds to decode it, the other two hours was me checking, rechecking and trying to find another explanation."

    "So the beacon's older than we thought, so what?" I wished Claude would get to the point.

    "Because it's impossible." Claude said firmly "You remember what it was like before Frame Shift technology, days to make a single jump, maximum range less than twenty light years, how long would it take to get out here? Five years? Ten? and the same back, all in total secrecy with not one leak in over twenty years?"

    "Looks like they managed it though, unless you have anything on it."

    "No, there's nothing on the grid, not even conspiracy theories because it's just too ridiculous."

    "We can worry about that later." I said my becoming impatient. ""What did the transmission say?"

    "Okay, so if this is right..."

    "Just spit it out man!" I half yelled in frustration."

    "It looks like a location, a planet and a set of coordinates."

    "Any mention of what's down there?"

    "Nothing. You should have the full text on your console so see for yourselves." I looked down at my display, read the transcript and my heart skipped a beat, one of the words leaping from the screen, a word an old and trusted friend had told me to be on the watch for, the word was 'dynasty.'

    "Anything on scanners?" I asked Claude as we closed on the coordinates.

    "Nothing, no transmissions either. I don't like it."

    "Neither do I, especially given how well this has been kept secret. How far out are we?"

    "Just under fifteen kliks."

    "That's withinn tele-presence range then." I thought aloud. "Mira take the fighter in, make a high altitude pass and if it's clear a low level recce."

    "Roger that Commander, launching now." Mira replied and I heard the clanking hydraulics of the fighter bay opening followed by the roar of the Taipan's engines as Mira gunned them for the target.

    "Something spooked you about the text of that transmission." The ever perceptive Claude asked. "Would you mind sharing what it was?"

    "A message from Admiral Craddock that was passed to me in Nanomam was to look out for two words, one of them was 'dynasty' the only message he had for me, one so secret it could only be passed on in person by a trusted contact and it was two words, and now we find one of them in a coms signal way out in the Formidine Rift."

    "What the hell is going on here?" Claude asked.

    "Hopfully we're about to find out."

    "I've got eyeball Commander." Mira's voice broke in. "There's definitely something down there. Too small for a port but it looks like structures and maybe a landing pad. I'm too high to see any detail, going in for a closer look, no signs of life so far."

    "Copy that Mira, keep your eyes skinned for any threats." I replied, Vik looking at me with a suppressed grin as I realised I was calling Mira by her name rather than he call sign.

    "Will do Commander." Mira replied, then a long pause. "Okay there's buildings, definitely human, look like those prefabricated accommodation and agri huts. Power's still on, no sign of life at all. Can't see any damage to the buildings, hard to be sure from here though."

    "Copy that Rogue Leader, get back to the ship." I ordered, this time remembering correct protocol to Vik's supressed amusement. "I need a closer look, I'm going to put us down and go in in the buggy."

    "Is that wise?" Vik asked.

    "It's a risk but there may be records, logs or something that gives us a clue to what happened here, and Mira didn't see any sign of danger."

    "A lot you don't see from up there though."

    "So be ready for a fast take off I replied with a grin.

    I drove the kilometre from our landing site with considerable caution keeping coms with the ship open all the way. The settlement itself was entirely unremarkable, like one of thousands of temporary bases awaiting either replacement with more permanent structures or demolition having served their purpose right across the bubble, except this one was over ten thousand light years away from the bubble.

    "There's tyre tracks." I relayed what I saw back to the ship. "Hard to tell in a vacuum but they look recent." I drove down the settlements main street. "No sign of anything, no life, no damage. Looks like it could have been put up yesterday." I turned a corner looking for the generator. "Found a data point that's still active, downloading it direct to the ship."

    "Got it." Claude's voice came back. "Firmware by the looks of it, I'll go through it when we have time. Look for any live coms logs, your scanner should pick them up if there are any, they'll give us a much better idea of what happened here."

    I made a complete circuit of the site. I am a curious man and I have seen a lot of strange things in this galaxy, I have stood in the ruins of a long dead alien city holding a still glowing relic of a once mighty civilisation now turned to dust in a past ancient beyond imagining, I have seen the so called 'barnacles' in the Pleiades, life, apparently miraculously existing in hard vacuum and I have examined the wreckage of strange spaceships like no vessel ever built by human hands, yet none of them felt so eerie or uncomfortable as this collection of instantly recognisable buildings lying abandoned and forgotten so far from home. Humans are strange creatures, show us the unknown and we will set out to meet it head on with bravery and fortitude, but show us a mingling of the unknown and the familiar, where the familiar is out of place, especially if it has succumbed to the unknown and even the bravest of us will feel the tingle of fear rising in their guts.

    "I've got some." I relayed to Claude. "Five or six showing, do I scan them?"

    "Yes, exactly the same as a data point."

    "Roger that." I turned the SRV towards the first signal, pulled up and activated my scanner. "Downloading it to you again."

    "Got it." Claude confirmed, then in a shocked, disbelieving tone. "Mon Dieu!"

    "What?" I replied alarmed.

    "Nothing." Claude replied unconvincingly. "Just spooked myself. The data needs cleaning up before it's any use anyway."

    "Alright, I'll scan the others and get back, there's something about this place that gives me the creeps."

    My drive back was made with considerably less caution and a great deal more speed than the outward trip and it was with immense relief that I pulled in under the Warspite's reassuring bulk and felt the magnetic clamps pull my buggy back into the vehicle bay. I headed straight to find Claude and sure enough he was in his lab, feverishly working on several terminals, so engrossed he did not even notice my arrival.

    "What have you got?" I asked.

    "Not much yet the computer's still cleaning up the data packets but it looks like something bad happened here. The main thing I've got so far though is the date, it ties in with that beacons code, this base has been here for over thirty years."

  5. #5
    Consul Jellicoe's Avatar
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    Jan 2017
    Part IV

    "So, the coms logs?" I asked. We were sitting once more in the Warspite's briefing room in a high orbit above the planet on which we had found the long abandoned base. There was no rational reason to have left the planet's surface, indeed further investigation of the settlement may have yielded further clues but none of us, not even Claude who prided himself on his reason and logic nor Vik, fearless warrior of the Punjab had been willing to spend the night amongst the shadows and ghosts of that strange and melancholic place. Even now I have not the words to describe how that place leeched the courage from a man. I have no doubt that those who read this will laugh and call us cowards, in your shoes I may have done the same, such is your prerogative. I make no boasts for my own pluck, but believe me when I tell you that every man and woman on that ship had seen death smiling at them many times before and each of them had always found the nerve to smile right back.

    "There are six entries that I've been able to isolate that interest us." Claude replied. "The rest are either too corrupted to decipher or just general chatter. I've uploaded them to your terminals so you can read through them for yourselves but the main points are these - the mission set out from Reorte in early 3270 and got out here much quicker than it should have been able to from what we know of jump drive tech back then, the mission was top secret: not only was nothing ever known back in the bubble but most of the crew didn't even know why they were out here and the mission ended in disaster with apparently no survivors. They appear to have suffered a number of cases of space madness and from what I've got here that seems to have been what doomed the mission." While Claude spoke I glanced down at my display and read the last two salvaged log entries suppressing an involuntary shiver -

    I'm scared, help me someone...I can't bear another jump. The lights in witchspace are coming for me, the lights...always the lights...they're calling me...a siren song...I must join them


    "My guess would be." Claude continued. "That they hadn't taken adequate precautions for the effects of spending that long a time in space, particularly in hyperspace."

    "That's crap." Harry Soames said aggressively. "Whoever was behind this mission clearly had a lot of money and very advanced tech, do you seriously believe they wouldn't have run proper psych evaluation of the men at the sharp end?"
    "That may be." Claude replied clearly taken aback by the vigour of Harry's reaction. "All I can tell you is what the evidence suggests and the most likely explanation for it and from what I've got so far a mass outbreak of space madness is my best guess."

    "You fucking tech heads are all the same." Harry growled. "No idea how the real world works."

    "Harry." I said firmly. "Claude is doing his job, giving me his conclusions based on the facts. He may be wrong but until we know more we can't say."

    Harry reddened and looked extremely abashed. "Of course. Sorry Claude, Skipper. Don't know what came over me."

    "It's alright." I said cautiously. "We've all been under a lot of strain lately." And so we had, Harry more than most, he'd thrown away his career for his friends and on top of that it seemed the soldier was struggling to become the civilian. I could have kicked myself for missing it.

    "How long did it take them to get out here?" Vik asked quietly but powerfully.

    "Nine months." Claude replied, still visibly shocked at Harry's outburst. "One of the logs says they had a hyper-drive malfunction six months in and that they had another three to go. That's a long time by modern standards but back then it should have taken years. They must have had some radically advanced drive tech that nobody else knew about or ever found out about."

    "Any idea who was behind it?"

    "None, but Harry's right whoever it was must have had a huge amount of money and way beyond cutting edge technology which narrows it down a lot."

    "You said they started in Reorte, the Alliance?" Mira asked.

    "Maybe but not necessarily. Back then Reorte was well outside the Alliance, the Old Worlds were a backwater in the 70's, if you wanted to hide something big in plain sight Reorte would have been a very good choice."

    "The Dynasty Expedition." I said thoughtfully. "Is the word 'dynasty' relevant? Which dynasty? The Duvals perhaps?"

    "That would be the obvious one but there is another possibility." Claude said thoughtfully and four faces turned questioningly to him. "The Li dynasty. Sirius."

    "Twenty years after the Antares disaster." Vik put in. "Maybe the tech wasn't quite as broken as Sirius told us?"

    "It's all possible but this is just blind speculation." Claude said in a voice thick with irritation. "The logs we retrieved speak of beacons plaural, we've only found one so there should be more out there."

    "Needle in goddam haystack." Mira snorted.

    "Well it's either that or turn around and go back home." Claude bit back angrily.

    "Alright everyone." I tried to sound firm and authoritative. "We always planned to be out here for several weeks, all that's changed is we now have something to keep an eye out for. We'll begin tomorrow, make a circuit of the surrounding systems and circle out from there. Now I suggest everyone get a few hours R&R and a good nights sleep. We start at 10:00 hours tomorrow."

    We began our journey, spiralling out from EAFOTS EU-R C4-1, checking each system as we went. On the journey out there I had been able to take pleasure in the galaxy, in the beauty of creation laid out before me, now though I found only irritation; another lifeless, empty system with no sign of our quarry, another barren rock set in billions of square miles of nothing. Why were we even out here at all? For Salomé of course. Salomé. And who was Salomé that I should risk myself and my crew all the way out here? Some pampered Imperial brat stamping her foot for the galaxy's attention who for all I knew could be guilty of everything they said she was. Had I not already risked my life more than enough times for her, yet every time she asked for more, always more and for what? So that one day all of us could end up as dead as those poor sods in Cemiess?

    I blinked hard to bring me back to myself. Delkar had clearly taken too much out of me as well as the others. I should have known this, I should have recognised the signs of stress, I should have accepted Erimus' offer and stayed behind and given myself and my crew the time off we needed to recover, instead I had brought everyone out here to die, forgotten and alone in the depths of the void at the edge of the galaxy.

    "Skipper?" I was dimly aware of Vik's deep voice next to me. "Skipper!" Louder this time and accompanied by a solid shaking of my shoulders. I snapped back out of my torpor.

    "Yes? What?"

    "You've been staring out of the canopy for the last five minutes. We're ready to jump." Vik sounded very concerned.

    "Sorry, didn't sleep well last night." I lied. "Jumping now."

    Our search went on, system after empty system, our nerves and tempers frayed until, late on the second day Claude picked up another coms signal, again in close orbit of the star. I had expected the familiar surge of excitement at finally running our quarry to ground but felt only a dark foreboding as the metallic tube with its solar panel wings came slowly into view.

    "As soon as you've got the transmission we get the hell out of here." I barked. Claude nodded, his face looking tired and drawn in the fierce glare of the nearby sun. Twenty minutes later with the signal recorded I had just turned away from the star to jump back into Super-Cruise when the ships computer broke the tense silence.

    "Warning. Airlock 3 has been activated.

  6. #6
    Consul Jellicoe's Avatar
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    Jan 2017
    Part V

    "What the hell happened?" I arrived at Airlock 3 to find Harry Soames and Cottrell the cargo deck chief ashen faced with shock.

    "It was Palmer the SRV mechanic." Harry said in a hollow voice. "Threw himself out of the airlock screaming. By the time we got here it was too late."

    "He was a bit strange last night sir." Cottrell said slowly. "Saying stuff that made no sense though, I just thought he'd been working too hard, I should have reported it, this is all my fault." He became steadily more agitated as he spoke.

    "Stop that." I replied firmly. "We see our crewmates stressed all the time, we can't report every one and if doesn't make anything your fault."

    "He had a wife and three kids back home." Cottrell continued appearing not to have heard a word I had said. "Thanks to me they'll never see him again."

    "Cottrell snap out of it! Report to Doctor Firman for a sedative and stand down for twenty four hours." I ordered then turned to the nearest computer terminal. "MINUS apply the following protocol to all airlocks, hatches and boarding ramps immediately, none are to be opened without a spoken order and retinal scan from two of the following ships officers; Stannis Jellicoe, Claude Marsaud, Sachin Vikash, Harry Soames, Mira Hyde. Confirm?"

    "Confirmed." MINUS's steely voice replied. "Override applied as directed." I had long resisted altering the voice of the ships computer but finally irritation at her unconcerned tones however serious the situation had ground me down and the haughty voice of the MINUS personality pack had appealed. it was a trivial but enjoyable change.

    "Morale's on the floor skipper." Harry said. "I had to break up a fight in the mess hall last night, another in the gym, my own temper's on a hair trigger and now this, don't know what's got into everyone."

    "Too much stress for too long. My fault if it's anyone's, soon as we get back we're all due a long holiday. Would you mind suiting up with me? I want to take Palmer back for a decent burial."

    Claude decoded the signal. Like the last one it was in a decades old code and contained coordinates to a location on one of the systems inner planets. Once again we found a human settlement, the same familiar cluster of temporary structures, pristine but deserted that looked as if they could have been put up the day before. We followed exactly the same procedure as with the previous base, Mira made a high then low altitude reconnaissance in the fighter before I went in on the ground in the buggy. The base was close to a low range of mountains just as the ground flattened off and hard to spot from the air. I put the Warspite down about a kilometre away, in the foothills and hidden from sight of the base by a small rise. It seemed an unnecessary precaution but I was a cautious man by nature and this mission had done nothing to change that. The short drive to the base was again indescribably tense, why? I cannot tell you, but something about those instantly recognisable structures all the way out here, so far from where they should have been combined with the mystery of their fate to make me jumpy and ill at ease. The lengthening shadows of the oncoming twilight only added to the almost overwhelming sense of foreboding. Humans tell ourselves how far we have evolved, how we are creatures of reason and logic, yet in a vehicle equipped with every scanning device that science could provide me with I still found myself peering nervously into the growing dusk much as our ancestors had once done from the safety of their caves.

    "I'm picking up contacts." I relayed to the ship. "Data point and a coms log, going... What the hell's that?"

    "Skipper?" Claude's voice was both curious and concerned.

    "Looked like a flash of light at the far end of the base, I'm going to wait here to see if there's another."

    "Have you got anything on your scanners? Ours are clear."

    "No, it was probably nothing, it's not flashed again. I'm going in to scan the data." I drove down the settlements main thoroughfare, my tension rising while at the same time I cursed my jumpiness. Then a sound. Very faint but it sounded like falling rocks. I turned towards the hills that formed the base's backdrop and switched the SRV's lights to maximum. Nothing. I resumed my heading for the data point unable to shake the uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched. I knew I was on edge, knew that I was over stressed and fought hard to keep my rational mind in control, it sounds so easy when put into words, but there, in that lost and forgotten place it was anything but. I scanned the data point and the first of the coms logs, still looking deep into every shadow while my ears strained for any noise beyond my own engines and tyre fall.

    "You might want to hurry skipper." Claude came through. "Possible contact at the extreme edge of sensor range."

    "Believe me old sport I'm not planning on being here a moment longer than necessary." I replied scanning the third coms log before wheeling round for the next. "Are you getting all this?"

    "Yes, I'll start analysing it as soon as we're spacebourne again." A short pause, then. "Those contacts we picked up, two Asps inbound on our position, be as quick as you can."

    "You think they're hostile?"

    "Do you really want to take the risk?" He replied in a voice thick with concern. I scanned the fourth log. I was picking up the Asps on my own scanner now, they were coming in fast. I was moving on to the fifth log when Claude broke in again. "Get clear skipper, they're ignoring our hails. Presuming them hostile."

    "Just need two more." I replied. "Not leaving without them." I gunned the engine down the back of the settlement, power slid round the generator, braked hard and began the download, about halfway through a blinding light seared into the ground to my left and clouds of earth were flung into the sky while a second laser blast gouged into the ground ahead of me.

    "Skipper get clear, you take a direct hit and you're dead."

    "Only need one more." I said through gritted teeth. "Get praying chaps." Seconds later the lead Asps shields flared as two thin, pale blue laser beams strobed across them.

    "I don't believe in prayer Commander."" Mira's voice cut in. "I'm engaging them with the turrets but we're a sitting duck, if they target us our shields won't last forever but it might buy you enough time to get back."

    "Roger that Mira, making the final uplink now." One of the Asps had pealed away from me to target the Warspite and I saw its lasers firing beyond the settlement followed almost instantaneously by the blue flash of shields beyond the low hill. The second hostile though was still focussed on me and a near miss dropped the SRV shields to 10%. I reversed into the lee of a nearby building hoping it would give me some protection, and maybe it did or maybe the Asp pilot simply moved position to get a better shot but it gained me just enough time to get the data and power forward just as the next salvo burned into the earth where I had just been. "Got the data, heading in full speed."

    "Quick as you can Skipper." Claude replied his teeth audibly gritted. "We're taking a real battering here." I gunned the engine once again and set off for the ship, zigzagging frantically through the base, slewing round corners, anything to avoid the searing blasts of laser fire that threw great gouts of earth, dust and rock into the sky behind me. I knew how hard it was to hit a small, fast moving ground target with big, ship mounted guns, but I also knew that he only needed one lucky strike to vaporise me and that even a near enough miss could easily do the job. I locked on to the Warspite, her shields were now down to 70%, still engaging the enemy with her two small turrets and I imagined Mira, no doubt wild with frustration at having to just sit there and take it. I ploughed onwards, the Scarabs engine screaming as she raced across the broken ground, spinning once, rolling once, each time righted by the thrusters before the Asp could take advantage and incinerate me. I crested the small hill and powered down the other side, the Asp making another attack run on the Warspite seemed to see me and hesitate, unsure whether to pour more fire into the grounded Anaconda or switch to the speeding buggy, got himself caught in two minds and did neither effectively. His colleague pumped one last volley that landed much too close for comfort and I was under cover of the ships hull, struggling to align myself with the boarding clamps.

    "Get me aboard and get us out of here." I yelled down my mic and I swear the engines were engaging before the bay door was even closed.

    "Stay strapped in Commander, this is going to be a rough take off." Mira sounded like she was thoroughly enjoying herself and I felt the surge of the main drives firing and propelling us towards open space.

    "Jump as soon as we clear the lock." I shouted. "Doesn't matter where to just put a few systems between us and them." I felt the surge of the afterburners, then the familiar sensation of hyperspace entry. We had made it, but would the data I had downloaded be worth the risks we had just taken?

  7. #7
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    Jan 2017
    Part VI

    We made five very rapid jumps before Mira, satisfied we had shaken off any pursuit, dropped us back into normal space in the ice rings of a planet in distant orbit of a planet incomprehensibly distant from home. We then spent a full six hours with either myself or Mira at the helm on full alert to run or fight at a moments notice before I relaxed enough to gather everyone in the briefing room. I looked around the table at the haggard, weary faces of my most trusted friends, every one of them looked on the edge and exhausted beyond measure.

    "Who the hell comes all this way to pick a fight?" Mira asked looking ready to kill.

    "It hardly takes a genius to work it out." Harry snapped back and I saw Mira's eyes flash dangerously.

    "Let's worry about that later." I put in hurriedly. "Claude, did you get anything from the last set of logs?"

    "Yes a good bit, I've uploaded it all to your own profiles again but a summary is this - it was from a different ship to the other ones we found."

    "How do you know?" Harry asked irritably.

    "Because two of the entries are dates tamped after the destruction of the first ship." Claude replied in his most condescending tone. Harry's face coloured and his jaw bulged but he made no further comment. "As I was saying." Claude said unnecessarily before continuing his briefing. "The main points are these, long voyage but again, much faster than it should have been back then, only five months this time, most of the crew completely in the dark about what was going on beyond placing beacons in space. On a more sinister note they also report strange lights in hyperspace and widespread system malfunctions. The ones I'd particularly draw your attention to though are logs four and six." I looked down at my holo-display, scan reading at first, then as I took the words in my heart almost stopped in my chest.

    Expedition Log 01/10/3270
    We picked up some kind of bizarre signal yesterday. Whatever it was wasn't human. At least that's the scuttlebutt going round the decks. Everyone is looking out of the canopies right now. We're seeing some strange lights during hyperspace transits. Terror? Yeah, we got some of that.

    I read it, then read it again, then a third time before moving on to the next one..

    Expedition Log 29/11/3270
    We're done and heading home. We picked up some heat signature in the last system. Definitely something out there and it wasn't any profile I had seen before. Something was watching us. There's something evil out there, and it doesn't like company.

    "Still think it's space madness?" Harry's voice oozed an unpleasant sarcasm and I glanced up to see him looking at Claude with a face of withering contempt.

    "In light of this new evidence it certainly seems unlikely that two ships would be affected in that way, I pres..."

    "Fucking told you so."

    "Harry!" I snapped, my voice sounding unintentionally vehement. "Please remember where you are and keep a civil tongue in your head. If you cannot act like a gentleman I suggest you confine yourself to your quarters."

    "I was only saying..."

    "No you were not." I thundered. "You were acting like a hot headed child not a trusted member of this crew, now either do what I pay you for or get out." Without a word Harry Soames stood, turned on his heel and stormed out of the room. I opened a coms channel to Doctor Firman. "Doctor could you go and see Harry please? He's not himself at all, you might want to take a couple of big lads with you."

    "On my way." Doctor Firman replied. "I'd like to see the rest of you as well, Claude first. Today." He finished in a tone that brooked no argument.

    I looked back to the shocked faces around the briefing table, only Vik remained as inscrutable as ever. "Anything else?" I asked quietly.

    "Just one." Claude said his voice audibly shaking. "I did a deep scan of the last beacon and when I went through the data it had the code word 'Exodus' in its BIOS, mean anything?

    I have no doubt that my face would have given me away even if I had been minded to keep it secret. "Yes." I said. "'Exodus' and 'Dynasty' are the two words Craddock told me to watch for, he was sure they meant something, looks like we've just found out why."

    Exodus; a mass migration of an entire people, from the Biblical Book of Exodus chronicling the flight of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, if you believe such things, was that what this was about? Some self styled prophet taking his flock to a promised land across the galaxy? No. None of them could afford anything on this scale, possibly Antal could now but not thirty years ago. Sirius? A better bet, they certainly had the resources, the Li family fitted with the dynasty part and if anyone had the drive tech to pull this off back then it would have been Sirius, but Sirius was a business not a cult, their purpose was to make money, lots of it. Exploration, exploitation and expansion would fit with Sirius not an exodus.

    I leaned back in my armchair and lit a cigar, my brain was turning to clay and my irritation rising as I pondered this opaque riddle. I considered brandy, then rejected the idea, took a long drag on my cigar and turned my tired mind back to the question at hand. The Empire perhaps? The Duval dynasty creating a refuge in case of catastrophic defeat? No, old Emperor Hengist certainly had his eccentricities but he wasn't insane and there was no way the cost of something on this scale could have been hidden from the Senate who would have gone mad. I looked back to the bottle of brandy which was becoming more tempting by the minute and was on the verge of pouring myself a large measure when there were two sharp knocks at the door.

    "Come." I said exhaling in irritation and knowing exactly who it was, for over a thousand years we had had electronic door buzzers but Doctor Firman insisted on knocking with his fist.

    "I thought I asked you to come and see me Stannis," The doctor said in a tone of mild rebuke.

    "Sorry Doc, I got caught up with something and forgot." I replied not entirely untruthfully.

    "Very well, tomorrow morning at 0900. Don't forget again. I smiled resignedly expecting Dr Firman to do the same but his face remained serious. "I need to speak to you anyway though, I'm very concerned about the state of the crew's mental health."

    "Yes." I sighed. "I should have noticed, I've been asking too much of them for too long. I shouldn't have brought them out here."

    "Stannis I keep a close eye on the crew because it's my job to, and trust me, if I'd had any concerns about any of them coming out here I'd have made quite sure you knew about it."


    "But there were none. One or two who could have done with a break but nobody I'd have thought twice about passing fit for duty. Less than a fortnight later we've had one suicide, half the crew are on the edge of complete breakdowns and most of the rest have strong symptoms of extreme stress, you included."

    "Space madness?" I asked. "None of us have ever been this far out before."

    "No but you're all experienced space travellers used to spending long periods aboard ship. I'd have been surprised to have more than one or two cases let alone what we've got."

    "So what is it?"

    "I don't know." Doctor Firman took off his spectacles and began to clean them as he collected his thoughts. "I've never seen anything like this before and there's precious little similar in any records I can find."

    "Should we head for home? In your medical opinion."

    "No. I should be able to treat the symptoms well enough to complete the mission, but as soon as we get home everybody will need a full course of proper treatment, including you." He placed considerable emphasis on the last two words.

    "Understood, anything else?"

    "Yes, the medication will take around twenty four hours to take effect and it helps if you can relax as much as possible during that time, we passed an earth like a couple of days ago, I suggest finding a beach and laying up for a day or so."

    "Alright we've got the time. Brandy?" I asked.

    "No I need to get to work preparing the meds." The doctor stood and headed for the door, put his hand out to open it then stopped and half turned, opened his mouth, paused, then spoke. "Stannis both the logs we've recovered speak of madness and terror very similar to what we're seeing now. I know correlation doesn't always mean causation but maybe it's something about this place."

    "Ghost stories Doctor?" I asked surprised.

    the Doctor half smiled. "Men once thought that the Moon was a ghost that chased the Sun through the sky and kept her captive during the night, the point is this, ghosts are only ghosts until we find the explanation, and whatever we tell ourselves there's still a hell of a lot about this universe we still can't explain.

  8. #8
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    Jan 2017
    Part VII

    The Anaconda does not handle well in atmosphere. It is a big ship with a lot of mass that takes careful handling close to any planet, throw in weather systems and turbulence and the Warspite was wallowing like a heavily pregnant Hippo, it also needs a lot of space to land and finding a place to set down within easy walking distance of a decent beach in the summer hemisphere of a primeval world untouched by either cultivation or technology had been a challenge but, after several sub-orbital passes I had identified a lightly forested site with what appeared to be numerous large clearings close to a wide, gently sloping beach. We were about ten kilometres out and hoping to stretch our legs in a genuinely unspoiled tropical paradise.

    "Gravity 82% Earth normal." Claude ran through the initial checks. "Breathable atmosphere, slightly more oxygen rich than we're used to but not enough to give us any problems, radiation well within tolerable parameters, climate within two degrees of Earth normal. Oh!" He broke off suddenly and intently studied his scanners. "Skipper cut engines." I pulled back on the throttle and looked questioningly at my first officer.

    "I've got a signal source from the planet surface." I looked at my own scanner and sure enough the pale blue shade of a detected signal source half covered the display.

    "Any heat signatures?" I asked concerned.

    "No nothing. Hold position I'll run a diagnostic on the scanners and check again .... yep scanners are fine, definitely something there."

    "Alright I'll sweep the area, keep your eyes peeled for heat traces." I made two decreasing circles around the area at low altitude, studying the ground as intently as Claude contemplated his scanners.

    "Nothing." Claude said. "If there is a ship down there it's completely powered down. Want to see if Mira can spot anything from the fighter?"

    I thought for a moment. "No. There's a fair bit of foliage down there and if it's under that she won't do any better than we have. I'll put us down and come back in the buggy while we're running the atmos checks."

    I found the perfect spot, two hundred metres or so from an idyllic white sandy beach. Strange birds wheeled and cried in a strange sky as an alien sun warmed an unknown landscape, the only nagging worry was whether we were alone?"

    "Usual drill." I ordered. "Full checks for diseases and toxins, nobody outside without a suit till they're complete. Check the water's safe to bathe in and make sure there's nothing in the plants that'll kill us if we touch them. Fingers crossed we can have a day on the beach without Mr Remlock's help."

    "Should take about an hour or so." Claude replied.

    "While they're running I'll take a drive to see what that signal source is. I'll keep coms open and make sure my rubber ring's ready for me when I get back."

    "You do know if it's some kind of listening post it'll have picked us up already, and if it's linked to those friends of ours in the Asps..." Claude left the thought hanging uncomfortably.

    "So make sure someone keeps an eye on the scanners and be ready to go, but let's not get ahead of ourselves there's a lot of things it could be."

    "Okay but be careful, there's something not right about this planet I can't put my finger on."

    "You're getting paranoid old chum." I said with a smile.

    "Maybe." He replied unconvinced.

    "Put the skimmers out and set them to give us a square kilometre around the ship just in case there's any hungry wildlife about. I'll be back as soon as I can."

    The drive took longer than I expected, the terrain was quite broken under the tree canopy and the foliage rather more dense than I'd hoped but before long I was picking up a strong metal trace and turned towards it. Presently I reached a large chunk of scrap metal obviously of human manufacture embedded in the earth, I got out of the buggy to examine it. It was clearly part of a ship but badly scorched and corroded and had clearly been there a while but whether years or decades was impossible to tell, clearly a ship had crashed on the planet, could the signal be survivors? Possibility from the Dynasty mission? I drove on, more wreckage, some of it salvageable was scattered through the Forrest but the strongest signal remained up ahead until, in a small cleaning the sensors picked up an escape pod. My heart leapt, a chance to get some answers as well as save another pilot from a fate we all dreaded, falling ever deeper into a cryo sleep they would never wake from, then a fear rose, how long had the pod been there? If it was from the Dynasty mission it may be too late, in theory a pod could keep someone alive for that long, in practice though? I drove closer with a mix of hope, fear and finally outright horror.

    The pod lay half buried in the ground, huge dents and rents in it's casing where it had been repeatedly battered by some large rock, a likely candidate lay nearby, until the metal had split and the pilot dragged helpless through the rent to be devoured by some native predator, a theory seemingly confirmed by torn patches of Remlock suit and what looked like a gnawed human thigh bone a short distance away. The only mercy was that the stasis drugs would have rendered the unlucky spacer oblivious to their fate. Where though was the predator? In fact where was any animal life? I had seen neither sight nor sound during my drive and save a handful of birds nothing at all since our arrival.

    I dug the best grave I could manage for the unknown pilot and got myself back to the ship to find Claude hunched over his console.

    "Atmos and bio scans are fine, the Doc's just sorting out some inoculations and we can get rid of the suits." he announced.

    "How's the water?" I asked.

    "Bit nitrogen rich, no more than half an hours exposure at a time but we can at least go for a swim."

    "Good. Will you be joining us?"

    "I have work to do."

    "We were told to relax." I said gently.

    "This is how I relax." The net runner replied.

    We spent two very enjoyable days on the beach, swimming, drinking and kicking a ball about. Doctor Firman administered the anti stress meds and I was beginning to consider waiting another day before proceeding with the mission when Claude came looking for me.

    "I knew there was something not right about this planet." he said, his face aglow with self satisfaction. "It's been terraformed."

  9. #9
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    Part VIII

    "Terraformed?" I asked so surprised by Claude's assertion that i doubted the evidence of my own ears. "You're telling me that a planet more than ten thousand light years from the bubble has been Terraformed?"

    "Yes. Not in a big way, probably little more than some atmospheric seeding but it's had a big impact, you remember I said the air was slightly oxygen rich but not a problem for us?" I nodded despite the fact that I had completely forgotten. "If we'd been here a century ago we wouldn't have been able to, it'd have been a lot colder as well. Something's been done to change the oxygen/nitrogen balance to make it more suitable for our lungs and increase the greenhouse effect, probably within the last fifty years no more than eighty at most.

    "How do you know this?" I asked remaining sceptical.

    "Data from atmospheric samples at various altitudes, water and rock samples put through computer models. I'd like some ice cores to be absolutely certain but it's an near exact fit for the terraforming process in near earth likes. Did you see any animal life when you were out in the buggy?"

    "No I did wonder why not."

    Exactly what fits with the computer models, a mass extinction in the very recent past, so recent that surviving species haven't even had time to expand into the space they've left yet."

    "That must have been one hell of a mass extinction."

    "The computer estimates between 93 and 97% of all species wiped out."

    "No natural phenomena that could account for that?" I asked.

    "Nothing the computer could find comes close, and we've observed a lot of these kind of planets, there's always the possibility of something we've never seen before but set against the 87% match with the terraforming process, well..." He spread his hands to emphasise the point.

    "Comet? Super volcano?" I asked wracking my brains for anything.

    "No we'd have picked up traces of anything like that."

    "The Dynasty mission?" I asked.

    "Can't prove it but it fits with the timings."

    "But terraforming's a major operation, could they even have got the kit out here back then?"

    Claude ran a hand through his unkempt hair and took a long, deliberate breath before answering. "Two weeks ago I told you it was impossible to have got out here at all thirty years ago, I was wrong, in view of what we've found here I don't think we can say what was and wasn't possible."

    "So they came out here, set up a network of beacons, established ground bases and began terraforming entire planets then what? After all that expense the whole thing was abandoned?"

    Claude smiled like a teacher seeing the first glimmerings of understanding in a likable but rather slow pupil. "I think that is a very pertinent question, why would they do that?"

    "How can we know?" I replied, Claude looked disappointed in me.

    "We can't, but we can make some educated guesses. Nobody abandons a project of this scale without very compelling reasons, from what we've discovered what might those be?"

    "We've seen it was a disaster, only thing I can think of is whoever was paying for it couldn't afford to keep going." I said well aware my answer was highly unlikely to be satisfactory.

    "But why did it end in disaster? They got here, they set up the beacons and began terraforming, why did it go wrong? Think Skipper, what was in the log?"

    I thought back to just before Harry's tantrum and cursed my stupidity. "The heat signature! She said it wasn't. They found something out here."

    Claude smiled with grim satisfaction, apparently satisfied with my progress. "Exactly, and the lights 'following' them in hyperspace that both missions saw? From what we've found so far my guess is that they found something out here and those back home decided it was best left very well alone."

  10. #10
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    Jan 2017
    Part IX

    We found two more bases, both telling now familiar stories of equipment failure, unknown signals deep in the void and eventual disaster. The question that preoccupied me was why? Too many Why's, why had the missions been sent here? Why the beacons? Why the bases why had they met with catastrophe and why had the whole thing been kept so secret for over thirty years? Perhaps the biggest question though was who? The Federation had clearly not wanted this to get out but the Empire's hounding of Salomé suggested they wanted the whole thing kept just as dark. The two working together? If the rumours were true it had happened once before, but that had been a long time ago and only in a time of extreme peril.

    We headed for home, swinging round the Heart Nebula so as to cross the galactic arm in a slightly different place just in case anyone out there was looking for us before taking a wide arc around the bubble to give us the shortest possible dash for HR6421 and home. I fuelled up and went straight for Serabrov, breaking the coms blackout only to request an escort from our jump in point to the station. We had made it. I left Claude to handle selling our data and run repairs and maintenance on the ship and went to find Wilber.

    "Alright Jell, glad you're not dead." He greeted me with a smirk as I entered his office.

    "We lost many?" I asked remembering the attack by the two Asp.

    "Good few missing but we did it, we bust this thing wide open."

    "What did they find in Conflux and the Gap?"

    "Same as you did in the Rift - beacons, bases, logs, all from the same year. This is big Jell, even bigger than we thought and now there's no hiding it any more."

    "Give me the full story then?" I asked eagerly.

    "Erimus is going do that tomorrow, all consuls need to be in the board room for 10:00 tomorrow so go get some proper food down you, have some decent kip."

    The atmosphere in the boardroom was electric when the consuls of the Children of Raxxla gathered there the following morning. All were still tired beyond measure and all were tormented by fears for those they had sent out into the void who were yet to return, but when I looked at the faces around the table each one held a twinkling mixture of excitement and triumph in their hollow, dark rimmed eyes. Erimus stood to begin his briefing struggling to keep the smile off his face.

    "We did it guys." He began and the grin spread until it seemed to threaten the structural integrity of his cranium. "We took on the Federation and we beat them." He paused momentarily to regain his composure. "It'll take several weeks to go through all the data we've got so there'll be no official announcement till it's done but the main points are these: in 3270 three missions set out from Reorte, one to the Formidine Rift, one to Hawkins Gap and one to the Conflux. The operation was codenamed the Dynasty Project though the code word 'Exodus' is also significant. Three missions to three different areas of the galaxy, all a long way from the bubble and as far as we know none of them ever made it home."

    "Who was behind it?" Kron asked. "There were no clues in anything we found."

    "That's one of the things we hope will be somewhere in all the data we've got to go through."

    "Anything that might help Salomé?" Zenith asked.

    "Again we won't know until the data's been properly studied, which could take months, we hope so."

    "Any ideas what they were doing out there?" Eisen said.

    "Again not yet."Erimus replied." Our intelligence people are going through it all with a fine toothed comb and their initially theories will hopefully be ready soon."

    "Have the Federation made any comment?" I asked.

    "No official statements so far but Devine's been sacked and a lot of minor heads have rolled, it seems to have thrown their whole exploration program into chaos." I nodded, some of my mixed feelings returning, there were some good people in the Federal astro-cartographic department and they didn't deserve this treatment. "Anyway." Erimus continued. "Until we've raked through the data there's nothing more we can do, take a break you deserve it, and well done."

    That evening I took my crew to the 'Silver Star' Serabrov Terminal's most exclusive night club and we all got royally drunk. I told them all how proud I was of them, paid each one a fat bonus and gave them a month off as Dr Firman had advised. The next morning Claude and I sat having breakfast both of us nursing very sore heads and fighting the urge to vomit as the stations rotation made the nearby moon and rings of the nearby gas giant flash past my dining room window.

    "What are you going to do for the next month?" Claude asked.

    "Alioth." I replied." Got a lot of lost time to make up for, what about you?"

    "No idea. Haven't had a holiday since I was a kid, probably stay here and help Wilber with sorting through the data."

    "Claude!" I said with a mixture of amusement and exasperation." Have a break, use my place in Dares and just sit on the beech with a drink."

    "I don't like beeches and doing nothing bores me."

    "There's a plane and a boat there, do whatever you want just do something normal for once." He raised an eyebrow and looked at me as though I had just asked for a night with his mother. "Alright! See you in a month."

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