Chapter 2

He dreamed of home. He dreamed of his parents, his brothers, his sisters, his house and his pets. His parents’ sandy blond hair, that made them look more like surfers than scientists, turned grey, turned white, and fell out. Like himself, his siblings inherited the same hair, the same sun-tanned skin, and like his parents he watched them age, year after year until they were bones, then dust. The house that was filled with his childhood memories and the house that he had worked for were impossibly next to each other, despite being built on different planets. First the roofs crumbled, then the walls came down. Plants grew and died in an endless cycle, bringing the dirt fractions of a measurement higher with each cycle until each house was buried and forgotten. He dreamt that while that all happened he stood there beside it, unable to move or even age along with them. Then he awoke.

He had been lain flat on the soft floor surface on the recreation room with the med-bay next to him. From the stiffness of his back, he had guessed that he had been there for a while. Looking up, it seemed that the rest of the team had placed a tarp over the hatch. He could feel the surface beneath him start to go firm, evidently the emergency power had failed and the changing texture of the floor was what shook him awake. As his mind started to clear he took in his surroundings more and noticed a figure sitting near him that wasn’t there when he fell unconscious. Specialist Jae Eun Lee, was watching over him with an unmoving face that made even dolls look animate. That was as much a signature of who she was as her love of explosives and her near crimson red skin. Not red in a derogatory sense, or in a flushed sense, but rather a trait of her unusual heritage. Several centuries prior to their ill-fated voyage, a group of radical environmentalists defied laws on the limits of human gene editing and their community created three thousand experimental children. Each child’s skin cells were filled with potent photosynthetic features similar to that of plants, but with a much higher efficiency, and giving them a distinct blood red colour. The energy that it produced was then routed to ridges along their backs that converted the chemical energy into electrical. They had hopped to show the Commonwealth that they could be less dependant on technology and live with nature while still having the tools that humans depend on. Instead they were arrested and their research destroyed. Three thousand children, however, was a viable population and they started to spread out and mix into society as their numbers grew. While the changes that had been made to them had been made into dominant genes, there was always a chance that a child with a non-red would be born without the electrical production ridges and develop a lethal aversion to the light.

Gene’s didn’t explain her obsessions, nor her stone-like face, however; that was all her. Considering Lee was awake, that meant he had been asleep for at least three days. Seeing that he had woken up, she moved to sit next to him, her long black hair brushing against him as she reached over him to pull the automatic diagnostic section of the med-bay into place. She then took off her shirt and attacked some cables to her back and the pack. Evidently the battery had died while he was out and she needed to power the thing herself. Looking at her he recalled a time, when he was younger, that the sight of her tone naked body would have made him aroused, but military training being what it was, what he instead felt was that she showed signs of dehydration and rushed defrosting that would impede her performance in an emergency. He took a drink from a water filled bottle that had been left beside him and, after taking a drink, passed it to her. Even if he was thirsty, he still knew that it would be better for him to just eat a food jell and leave the water for her. After all, when she was generating power she needed to drink as much as four people combined. Unfortunate for her, that much water couldn’t be put in a food jell and still have it function, so she had to keep track of things the old fashion way.

As Lee drank she activated the machine without any confidence to her actions, as if she were merely following steps she had memorised, without any understanding behind the motions. As she did so she started to talk to him, her voice as it always was, so monotone and devoid of inflection that you would think she were a computer reading out numbers rather than a woman striking up a conversation. Though oddly, the way that she sounded and the way that she spoke were completely disconnected.

“So, like, the Cap and Ashie are out scouting, and Medidi is setting up some PV cells to get this thing back to, like, basic functionality.”

If he had to describe how he thought of how Lee spoke, he would probably say, ‘if a military robot was taught to speak by a teenage girl.’ When they had first met he had found it grating and dreaded having to talk with her. Like all things, it had slowly grown on him and he just thought of it as one of her many quirks. He did know, however, that his initial response was a common one, and he had heard rumours circulate the barracks that it was the reason for most of her brake ups. He didn’t give that much credit, however, since it was far more likely that her partners just didn’t like her military lifestyle, her lack of visible emotions, or her obsessions with making things go through a combustion reaction. As far as he knew, she might even enjoy watching bridges burn.

“while they all do that,” she continued, “we, like, have to watch Medidi and make sure none of the local anything gets her, you know? But like some weird shit popped up when the scan thing happened and they want me to run it again now that your awake.”

With that she stopped talking and let the machine do its work. Although he felt a tingling sensation, he knew that was in his head and the scanner didn’t operate with anything the body could actually feel. Whatever ‘some weird shit’ was, he hopped it was just the result of novices using a machine, rather than something actually wrong. After a couple minutes of quiet, the device made a low hum and it began to display its findings. Although most of it meant nothing to him, chemicals, fractions and other such things that meant nothing without context, there was one part that he could understand. ‘Unidentifiable radioactive substance found in bloodstream, insufficient information to recommend actions.’

“Hee, same as before, huh?” said Lee, who like him paid the rest of the display no attention, “When we scanned everyone else we didn’t get that, so looks like its just you. Feel bad?”

Folding the scanner away and handing the power cords back to her, he looked over his body and tried to feel for anything out of the ordinary. After a few stretches he concluded that he was fine. Had Dr Hall survived he might have been more concerned, but without her around think about it would just be worrying over something he couldn’t change. As such, he got up and grabbed something to eat as he made his way towards his cryogenics pod. On the remaining wall, the one not taken up by the behemoth weapon, the pod or the door, was a cupboard. Inside was a small box that contained the personal affects he was allowed to bring and, more importantly, his armour.

The NCCAF standard issue armour was already an impressive piece of equipment, but the top of the line gear that they were given for the media to drool over made that stuff look like the old Kevlar vests that he had seen in museums, or were worn by reenactment societies. Synthetic muscles and micro-motors wove throughout it and were fixed at the joints to more than triple the wearer’s natural strength. The impact absorptive fibres of the underlay reduced any hits and used some of the force to power its battery. The outer fibres were made to have a programmable chameleon effect, while still being photovoltaic enough to charge a third of its power requirement at Earth level lighting. The middle fibres were amongst the most impressive, though, with a mixture damage resistant, resin sealing and explosive reactive fibres, it was the layer that prevented damage and plugged it up afterwards. If it was hit by weapons above what it could take, small outward facing explosives would detonate in that exact location to disperse the force away from the armour, then resin would fill the gap and harden, preventing exposure and vulnerabilities. Because it was made without any plate sections, aside from over the heart, it was able to freely move with the body without limiting the motions. They did take some getting used to, moving with the armour, letting it push with you and not fighting it, but there was no doubt that there was no better protection, aside from an Arc Suit or a ship’s hull. Additionally, when the boots and helmet were worn, the armour could even be used in space combat, though its thrust was from the same supply as the air, so the external tanks were rather needed in that situation.

He also felt far more comfortable once in the armour, as the synth-muscles supported his body and even aided blood flow. He hadn’t really noticed it at first, since he attributed the sensation to the grogginess of just waking up, but the planet’s gravity was about a fifth higher than earth’s. Flicking his mind back to the mission briefing, he recalled hearing that it was actually light for its size, with a surprisingly low concentration of core metals. Because of that, the colonists had started with a automatic mining facility in the system’s nearby asteroid belt. That was pretty much that only place in the system that made ship fuel, or so said the data they had been given. He also remembered some other basic information; eighteen hour days, nine hundred and eighty nine day long years and four moons that meant no lunar calendar had been made at the time they launched. The planet’s most interesting natural feature was its plant life. The plants’ closest Earth analogy would be that of certain types of sea-weed, where the whole plant was just a connection of single celled organisms. With each cell being a whole creature the reproduction process was fast but energy intensive, meaning the plant life grew rapidly but needed a lot of power to do so. The cells did, however, act almost symbiotically, with organisms with ground access trading their excess resources for the stellar energy gathered by those with a lot of sky access. The plants between the two just survived by taking a cut from every trade. That meant that all of the tree like plants were hollow at the core, with the most effective transmitters sticking to the edge and the inner cells starving to death. There was probably a metaphor for something there, but he couldn’t think of what that might be. Unlike Ashton, he was no poet.

The upside of the plants for the colonists was that the planet’s ecosystem was mostly intact. The drone’s attack would have made most planets a lifeless ball of dirt for several centuries afterwards, but after only five hundred years the entire place was covered with the red-purple coloured plants. The native plants could also be made into good soil for more familiar plants, which was one of the reasons it was chosen to be a home.

The conditions that the plants liked, however, were some of the reasons why he hated the planet. Firstly, the star was bright. While the surface temperature was lower than good old Sol, the local star was twice as massive and put out a lot more light. While their relative position, water percentage and a lot of other things he didn’t understand meant that the temperature range was actually very similar to Earth, the brightness was like someone had switched out a light-bulb without telling him. That similarly was added to by the difference in colour. The light orange hue just felt ill. Then there was the soil that the plants loved. The plants had to have been masochistic to him, as a large part of the soil was acidic. While there wasn’t any real danger from it, pale skin would feel like it was burning or itching on contact with it. The plants loved that, with them clustering around where the acid was strongest.

With the armours checks complete, he hefted the heavy rifle off the wall beside him, letting it resting it rest on his shoulder like a plank of long wood or steel beam. He slotted the box filled with bullets longer than his full hand into place and left the ship. Standing on the roof of the escape pod, under the shade provided by the tarp, he remembered how much he hated the star light. Adjusting a dial on his helmet caused the transparency to darken and he became better able to see. He could see that Lee and Isabel were nearby, and both were in their armour also. They were easily told apart in their armours, as each suit was made specifically for its user. Isabel’s was filled with slots and catches that could hold tools as she worked, and its basic colour, when not chameleon-ed, was a reflective, hi-vis orange. Lee’s on the other hand barely looked functional. In order to let more light hit her skin, her armour’s muscles contracted in several sections to leave large holes that could be closed in less than a second. Her armour also had plates along her back ridges that allowed better conductivity and protection. From what he had heard, ridges didn’t grow back. Cords attached between her suit and Isabel’s seemed to indicate that the engineer had been working for a while. While the armour wasn’t entirely self-sufficient while it was in use, just wearing it to make repairs wouldn’t drain its power particularly fast. Looking at the soft blue coloured display inside his own helmet, he hopelessly tried to guess at how long it would take her to drain the suit while working in such strong daylight. It was then that he noticed the local time on the display, nightfall was only a couple hours away. They were probably making sure she had enough power to make it through the night if need be.

Looking about, he could see that the ship’s impact had scraped along the ground for what looked like several kilometres, forming a near straight trench that ended with the ship being half buried in soft soil. The pervasive plants were already starting to grow back down the trench walls, and he imagined that after a couple weeks the gap would seem like a natural part of the landscape. The fires that their collision caused had cleared away a field around the ship that gave them room to work with and it seemed that the plants avoided the scorched soil. It seemed that where he was standing was the tallest place around, and as such he followed his training and set his rifle down, prepared it so that it could be shot at a moments notice, and activated his helmets scouting systems.

As he was expected to have to hit targets from as much as two kilometres away, his armour was customised to include several features that assisted that. His helmet included a wind approximation module, that used used a camera that measured differences in pictures too small for a human to register to extrapolate the wind as far way as he could see, then displayed that information as a colour coded chart. Next it had a radar system with multiple settings, either focused forward to aid in aiming the shot, or as a warning against anything approaching. Similarly there was a laser sonar, that was sensitive enough that he could direct it at a leaf in the distance and hear everything as though it was his ear there instead. That same system could also be directed to a general circle around him to simply augment his hearing, and that was the more often used setting. Also amongst the display tint settings were night vision and infrared; classics that had been a part of soldiers’ gear since before even his grand-father served. With his display covered with the details the various sensors provided, he wouldn’t be very effective at scouting while moving, but as a stationary guard, he was the best. If he cared enough, he could probably even start counting the bugs on the trees.

As he kept watch, Isabel started to talk over their short ranged communications, despite her being close enough that she could have just yelled.

“While you were out the captain finished defrosting and we worked out what needs to be done. While there aren’t any recognisable com signals anywhere in range of our receivers, in other words, probably not on the planet, there was some strange radioactive interference registering without a pattern. The captain figured that’s just what the kids are using these days and took Ashton to scout out the closest source.” She took a pause, though he couldn’t really see a reason why; possibly to think or possibly she just got tired. Her voice then drifted into his ears, as suddenly as it had stopped. “There’s a no one goes anywhere alone rule in place, and a sleeper, that’s the specialist or the captain, and a wake-er, that’s you, me or Ashton, have to be in the group. That way the saboteur doesn’t have a chance to screw things up without someone finding out.”

After that she filled him in about the broader plan. While their main ship was destroyed and spread across the planet’s many oceans, the bombardment drone was still in space and likely had a working sub-space drive. That meant, if they wanted to get back to Earth, they had to either get their pod to the drone or the drone to the pod. Which way they tried that was dependent on its condition, and that was what Isabel had spent the previous few day working on. Their ship had no power and was damaged by pieces of the main ship breaking off, so she patched broken parts and connected stellar power cells to its grid. That task would normally have only taken a couple hours, but all of her robots were broken and the compartment that the cells were stored in had been buried in the landing. Once they had power and a working array, she would sent a signal to the drone and hope that it was still functional enough to be able to send her a diagnostic. If it still had some fuel and was mostly intact, they would then get it to land near them. If it was a broken mess or out of fuel, they would have to go up to it, somehow. The drone hadn’t been given much fuel, since it was expected that their ship would pick it up and carry it back with them and therefore didn’t need an excess. They had hopped that no one had cut corners and it had been given the standard secondary supply that would be enough to get to the automated mining station.

If there were still people alive on the planet, they would at least be able to purchase some fuel to get their pod back up their, if they weren’t able to get a ride back to Earth. They also had to hope that any locals didn’t view the drone as a war memorial and try to stop them from taking it. Since it was around the planet for so long without ever being shot down, that was a possibility.

A while after Isabel finished explaining, and just as the star was starting to set, he picked up human shaped movement on his sensors. The radar dispersal pattern and sound profile was consistent with the two other team members, but he none the less lined up his rifle’s scope, just to be sure. In a previous mission, a battle in a abandoned station over the last of the fuel, needed by both them and the separatist terror cell’s ship, the enemies had forged profiles in order to get the drop on them. Ever since then, he had never trusted the display with the confidence he used to. Sure enough, he had been paranoid and the captain arrived back at the ship about half an hour after dark.

Benjamin Harroway was their captain, and a good one at that. He had joined their team not long before their previous captain retired and at the time members of other teams had called it a diversity hire. It had fit almost perfectly with the prevalent joke that one in six soldiers in the commonwealth needed to be Venusian, or from one of the Venus stations. The fact that nearly ninety percent of all Venusians served at some point in their life compared with the commonwealth average of two percent, it was an unjust rumour to say the least. There was something about living in a lifeless hellscape that just made them into good soldiers and a soldier’s life was a good way to bring in the money for the supplies their colonies always needed. With charcoal black skin and a towering height that was nearly eight foot tall, and a broad, muscular body that made that height seem in proportion, Harroway was everything the Venusian stereotype said. He also had an understanding about machines, and how to keep them running, forged from a childhood on a station that would be destroyed in seconds if something broke down. He was a top scorer on the officer training exam. He even lost his legs pushing a fellow soldier out of the way of incoming fire. His new legs, made with the same synthetic muscles as their armour, was a constant reminder that their captain always had their back. As he entered the clearing he signalled for them to all go inside. As the captain passed him, headed inside, he was given the access codes for the network of sentry probes they had set up while they scouted, effectively giving him extra eyes throughout the forest. While that would normally be too must information for him to process, the probes had enough processing power to communicate with each other and priorities what he saw. Anything they deemed to be non-urgent simply appeared as a dot on the map, that his display had constructed using the scanners, and he could access the recordings when he had time.

Once everyone was inside and the captain started talking, he remembered the one thing that he wished he could change about the captain. While the commonwealth had a universal standard language, a kind of piecemeal language that somehow naturally formed out of the four most commonly spoken languages before leaving Earth was an option, colonies tended to form their own dialects over time. Travelling through space was an inherently expensive process and that left the general population without the need to adhere to a strict formal language, and variations sprouted rapidly from there. That was particularly the case for Venus, whose dialect was often argued to be an entirely different language. Speaking Venusian was a habit that Benjamin Harroway never seemed to kick.

“About five batotha at twelve arbshi there was a smodwa. Strange place. They used encon and clay in equal measure; not sure if they want to make things last or waibu.”

His mind dredged through his memory as fast as to could to piece together the phrases to work out what was said before the huge man started to talk again. ‘Batotha’; a shortening of battalion approximate two-thirds away, or roughly the distance a large group of soldiers could cover, moving at two thirds of their maximum running speed in the given time of 5 hours. It said a lot about the Venusean people that a common unit of distance they used was based on military movements. Next there was ‘arbshi’, or an arbitrary north as chosen based on the direction the ship landed facing. That was used when north wasn’t know, knowable, or helpful. Finally, ‘smodwa’. That essentially just meant village. More accurately it was any place that fewer than 20 humans lived, including small space ships like their own. So his first sentence was, roughly 90 kilometres away along a heading 12 degrees to the left of the ship, there was a small group of people living there. The next sentence was far more easily understood. ‘Encon’ was just enzyme bonded concrete or cement, made to absorb water over time so that it didn’t break like traditional stuff yet could be sprayed in place to make quick and cheap buildings or surfaces. ‘Waibu’ was a Venusian term that was derived from ‘watch it burn’ and meant to make something badly, incorrectly or without wanting it to last. It could also be used insultingly, though saying it about another person was a sure way to start violence.

“The locals seemed genpien and didn’t look like they’ve mastered electricity, let alone something like the weishi we detected.” Their leader continued speaking, just after he decoded the previous sentences, saying something that started to concern him. “A couple signs on the buildings used symbols, or maybe just drawings, instead or words. Romano informs me that in ancient cultures that was a common practice in illiterate communities. If that’s the case for the whole planet then we’re yubulled. No way a people that can’t even read have rockets.”

He knew that ‘genpien’ was the Venusian derogatory term from people that chose not to use technology, such as colonists that never advanced their planet beyond an agrarian society. He also knew that a ‘weishi’ was an unknown radiation signature. What didn’t know was ‘yubull’, though he could guess at it from the context. Before the captain could continue, he saw something in his display and signed to the group.

“Hold up,” he started to say, before selecting an option that allowed him to share the video with the group by sending it to their displays, “it seems like there are some people approaching from the village. They’re following your steps too neatly, it looks like you were tracked.”

There was a group of four people approaching, three young men and an old woman, dressed in clothing that seemed to be made of some kind of animal hide. Two men had solid looking spears, the tips of which the probes said had the same components as a shuttle’s hull, one man had a bow, that was almost as tall as he was, and an animal skin quiver of equally impressive arrows, and the lady walked with steps braced against a tall staff. He had never seen any who looked so old; even the cheapest genetic alterations ensured that body ageing wouldn’t happen for at least a century, and that amount of time was almost certainly enough time to buy a regeneration cycle. Almost everyone that reached the two hundred body year limit did so with a youthful appearance. If he hadn’t watched a horror movie about a failed cryogenics pod, he might not have understood what had happened to her. The group walked at her pace, and were making bad time because of it. They would have to walk for roughly 36 hours, two local days, to make it to the ship. As it seemed unlikely that they had any travel stims or the likes, it would likely take them three or four days instead. Each person carried a large backpack with what seemed to be a bed rolled up and attached to it, aside from the woman whose own bag was considerably smaller, though still with a bedroll.

With continued analysis, all of their metal, their knives, arrowheads, armour beneath the pelts and tools, seemed to be recycled from ship components. That hopefully meant that there was a fuel tank somewhere on the planet. It also seemed that their language, though they didn’t speak much as they walked, was based on the common tongue but more dialect-ed than even Venusian. That at least meant they were at least capable of communicating, though he had secretly wanted to see the captain trying to signal and gesture and grow steadily more frustrated. Amongst the officers’ training that Harroway had done was a course on theoretical first contact that contained advice for how to establish communication without a common language. He also noticed that moved surprisingly easily, despite the darkness. There was some light from a full moon, the yellow-most of the local satellites that was the smallest and fastest amongst them, but that light was blocked by the canopy of trees in their endless battle for resources. He could hear Isabel analysing how threatening their weapons were beside him, having connected herself to his suit directly to get the data in its raw format. She calculated that the bow had a draw strength of at least one hundred and eighty pounds. Without any force dispersal, muscle enhancements or compound functions, it was impressive that the local was able to use a bow that strong. It was not, however, enough force to damage their armour. It could scratch the chameleon fibres and cut some of the synth-muscles, but the hardening and dispersing would take care of the arrowhead without even needing to trigger an explosive dispersal. There were one or two tiny spots that the arrow could hurt them, such as in a particular joint at the neck where suit and helmet met; a flaw that was simply unavoidable if the ability to look up was to be retained.

She also calculated the strangers’ potential ability to resist their weapons. Minimal. Their armours had some ship hull sown in under the hide that would provide good protection against swords, bows and spears, but were not must use against their weapons. Their pistols wouldn’t work particularly well, but their normal rifles would break through in only a couple of shots and his and Lee’s weapons wouldn’t even notice a difference. If the extra shots was a problem for the others they could always swap their rounds out for the spare larger rounds, that was the beauty of the adaptive modular weapons program; just inserting a different box of bullets made the weapon resize to fit. It had limits but meant that if a soldier ran out of rounds they could just use whatever they had, be it their pistol bullets or enemy supplies. After all, an under-powered weapon in better than no weapon.

They still had plenty of time to think about how they were going to deal with the group when they eventually arrived, so they instead returned to what they were doing. He and Isabel continued to watch the approaching strangers as they listened to the captain speak. They were going to have to take things as they come and adapt, if the drone plan worked then they would go with that, otherwise they would have to trade for some, if there was none to trade for, then they would have to make their own. As the captain finished speaking and asked if there were any questions, specialist Lee asked one that, he had to admit, had crossed him mind for a brief moment.

“So, like, these peeps are all, like, stone age-ey… Why don’t we just, like, rule over them. Its not like they have anything that could, like, harm us and our guns could blow the shit out of anything they’ve got. Besides, with how backwards they are, us ruling them would, like, push them forward a few centuries.”

The room went silent as her monotone voice sunk in. Was it better to be rulers of a backwards society or soldiers for a progressive one? He knew that the answer would be different for each of them. He knew Isabel well enough to know a planet without machines was her idea of hell, and the brightness gave him the same impression. The planet was almost perfect for Lee, and would only be topped with an explosives laboratory of her own. The captain was Venusian down to the smallest cell in his body and failing to return to his post, to return supplies to his people, went against something fundamental. As for Ashton V. Romano, Nix didn’t have the slightest clue where he stood.


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