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Chapter 8

November 7, 2406 AD

27 Light-years from the Sol System

Monday, 6:35 AM, Expeditionary Mission Standard Time

The shuttle had been retrofitted as best Buckley could manage. DeathRay certainly hoped that the CHENG had done a good job. He had no reason to believe he hadn’t. The CHENG had been through a lot with the crew of the Madira, and DeathRay had confidence in him. The mission was simple: use the QMT system to teleport into an unknown system and gather intel as to where in the galaxy the other side of the quantum membrane teleportation was. With only the address, all they knew was that they would teleport to another pad somewhere. The pad could be four kilometers away or a trillion kilometers away. According to the eggheads, there was just no way of knowing without going there.

Once there, the first order of business would be to analyze the local stars with hopes of determining its celestial location. The second order of business was to gather recon on the system. It always helped if you knew how many uglies there were before you came in with all guns a-blazin’.

Buckley had given the ship a once-over, looking for transmitters and automated systems, but you never knew when it came to Artificial Intelligence Counterparts. Those things could be hidden almost anywhere. In fact, the more modern ones that humans used were about the size of a sunflower seed without the shell and were implanted just behind the ear canal inside the skull.

DeathRay turned to his copilot and wife, and gave her a wink. “Madira, this is Recon One.”

“Recon One, go ahead.”

“All systems are go, and we are ready for teleportation.”

“Understood, DeathRay,” General Moore’s voice responded. “You are go for teleportation. Godspeed. And Boland, be careful.”

“Understood sir.” DeathRay flipped off the comm and turned to Nancy.

“Well, it’s now or never. We can always decide to do it later if you want to go home.”

“Hmpph.” Nancy gave a wry smile. “Shut up and push the button.”

“Affirmative,” DeathRay laughed. “Everybody buckled in back there?” he conned to the rear of the shuttle. His crew consisted of three first Recon Marines in armored environment suits (Lieutenant Jason Franks, First Sergeant Rondi Howser, and Corporal Samuel Simms), and the CHENG’s assistant, Petty Officer Engineering Technician First Class Sarala Amari. Just in case they came across technical glitches, it was always good to have a technician on board.

“Yes, sir!” was the response from the crew cabin. DeathRay flipped the internal conn off and looked at Nancy.

“I hate doin’ this without Dee.”

“Me too.” Nancy frowned. “Doc said it would take her another couple of days for the hand graft to take hold with no residual pain.”

“I know. But I hate doin’ it without Dee. You ready?” DeathRay said.

“I’m ready,” Nancy responded.

Okay, Candis, DeathRay thought. Here we go. Initiate auto-sequences and be ready for whatever might happen.

Roger that, boss, Candis replied.

DeathRay reached forward and pressed the QMT controls. There was the eerie sense of his hair standing on end and his skin crawling, and a faint hiss and crackle as if someone were frying bacon in a skillet. For a second, DeathRay saw stars, and then the stars he had been seeing were changed, and he was looking at a large moon covered with blue and green, near a gas giant orbiting a red giant star.

Whoa, that didn’t take long, he thought. Candis, are you scanning? Figure out where the hell we are.

Scanning, Jack, she replied.

“So whaddaya say, Penzington?” he said to his wife. “Any ideas where we are?”

“Not yet. Any threats?”

“None to speak of, but I’ll betcha a dime to a doughnut they’re on that planet.”

“Why would the AIs need a blue-green planet?”

“You got me. That would suggest that there are biologicals involved.”

“Maybe they found something there that they can host in.”

“Maybe,” DeathRay replied. “Well, I don’t like just sitting out here in open space. I’m gonna go dormant. Let’s cut off everything but the passive sensors. No comms, nothing.”

“Hell, we shoulda done that before we teleported in.”

“We’ll remember that next time,” he said.

The little shuttle sat, floating adrift in space near the gas giant, for several minutes. Mostly, nobody said a word. There was the occasional direct-to-mind communication between AICs and hosts, but there was very little verbal communication. Then Nancy broke the silence.

“Allison has a fix on where we are, Boland.”

“Yeah? Do tell.”

“I’m transferring the coordinates to DTM now, but it looks like we’re a good twenty-eight light-years from Sol.”

Twenty-eight light-years?! Jesus! How did they get here? No humans have ever traveled this far from Sol, to my knowledge.”

“Yeah. There is only one colony that has made it to twenty light-years, and that is Gliese 581c. There may be an outpost slightly beyond that by a light year or two. Tau Ceti is one of the outermost densely-populated settlements at twelve light years, and Gliese 876d, at fifteen, has maybe a quarter million people. It took years to get there and get gates set up. At top speeds, it would take years to get here, especially decades ago when hyperspace travel was much slower.”

“Well, Copernicus was a century and a half old, at least.”

“Good point. And if that signal came along during the Sienna Madira presidential timeframe, then that’s over a hundred and fifty years ago.”

“Jesus. But with the technology they had then,” DeathRay said, “it would have taken . . . thirty years, or more, to get from Sol to here.”

“How fast could the Madira get here?”

“. . . Eighteen months?”

“That’s what I thought. Whew. We’re gonna have to rethink this. We’re gonna have to bring a gate and snap back.”

“Yeah. Well, the Madira has one end of that, but we certainly couldn’t use the shuttle. Somehow we’d have to tie into the gate here. And I don’t think that’s ever been done.”

“That’s beyond my pay grade, Boland. I think that’s a question for Buckley, or somebody smarter than him, like the STO.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s the CHENG’s job. It’s probably the science officer’s job,” Jack agreed.

“Well, let’s figure that out when we get back.” Nancy looked over the readouts from the passive sensors.

“You’re right, Nancy,” Jack thought for a moment. Right now they needed more information about what was going on in this system. “Okay, first, calibrate the navigation system, and let’s see if we can’t find a way to do some recon on that planet.”

“Roger that,” Penzington replied.

Penzington worked the optical controls and pointed the telescope system the CHENG had installed at the planet. Several times she had to use ET1 Amari’s expertise. But after a few minutes of tinkering with the telescope, they managed to get some optical imagery that showed dwellings. As best they could tell, they looked like humanoid-sized dwellings.

“What do you reckon lives here?” Boland asked. “If they’re human-sized, could there have been colonists?”

“A hundred and fifty years ago? On a thirty-year flight? That’s unlikely. Unless . . . they had help,” Nancy replied.

“What do you mean, help?” Boland turned and looked at her, puzzled.

“Well, you know the story as good as I do, according to Moore. He claims that there was some kind of alien signal that Madira had received, and it was about that time that Copernicus began to take over her personality.”

“I still don’t put much stock into the alien conspiracy theory, Nancy. How could Madira or Copernicus cover up an alien signal? Wouldn’t other scientists have seen it? And, why did Madira find it? And for that matter, how did Moore?”

“If it looks like a duck . . .” Penzington smiled. “Who knows, maybe they were supposed to be the only ones to find it. Or maybe Copernicus had any others all killed.”

“Well, let’s do this the right way. It is too risky to fire up the QMTs just to send back a drone with info. It would give us away for sure. Everybody gear up. We’re gonna drop down to the planet and do some recon. We’re gonna leave the shuttle here and use our own QMT pad and snap-back bracelets. If things go awry, we’ll snap back, then reactivate the teleporter back to Madira. Understood?”

“Roger that,” resounded from the back.

“All right. We’re go. We’re gonna be teleporting planetside in five minutes. I want everybody ready to go.“

The surface of the planet was not unlike Earth. As far as they could tell, the air was not that much different, if maybe slightly thinner, like the higher altitudes in the Alps or the Rocky Mountains of Earth, but it was perfectly breathable and no biotoxins were detectable. The gravity was about 0.9 Earth gravities. It pretty much felt like home, Boland thought. That is, if home had a big gas giant looming overhead. Might have felt like like home to the colonists from Tau Ceti but not to Jack. He was from Earth.

The AEMs held point while Boland, Penzington and Amari took up the rear in standard Navy armored environment suits, not quite like the powered armor that the AEMs wore. Penzington’s, of course, had her own special attachments and adjustments that she had used and modified over the past couple of years. None of it was standard issue for any branch of the military, but Penzington didn’t belong to any branch of the military. Being an operative of the intelligence community, and retired on top of that, she was merely an “onboard advisor.”

Many of the senior officers Earthside had originally balked at the idea of taking civilians and non-military advisors aboard on such long-term missions with important military goals, but Alexander Moore wanted her along, so by God, she had come along. Although he was only a general, he was a former president, and he was most certainly a hero to humanity. So the Joint Chiefs rarely said no to the newest captain of the Madira.

And Boland liked that fact. He knew that if they needed something, Moore would get it for them, and that Moore, being a Marine himself who had lived through some of the bloodiest battles in history, wouldn’t just throw his troops haphazardly to the grinder.

The coordinates they had pinpointed to drop down to the surface were just outside where they had noticed the settlements. The settlements appeared to be largely of concrete and alloy materials in nature, with some composite materials. They were high tech. There were modern power technologies and grids scattered about, and from Allison’s best guess, there was enough infrastructure to support something along the lines of one hundred thousand to a million occupants on the surface. The AIC claimed there wasn’t enough data to narrow it down better than that. The odd thing was that there were no signs of any occupants.

With mainly passive sensors, and QM sensors that, hopefully, could not be spoofed or detected, the recon team moved quietly through the forest, approaching the outskirts of the urban area. There was a high fence that seemed to surround a major portion of the dwellings. What bothered DeathRay was that he had no way of knowing if that fence was for keeping something out, or for keeping something in. So one way or the other, at some point they would be on the wrong side of that wall. That made him uneasy.

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