Beyond the Surveyors
Brett P. S.
Copyright © 2017 Brett P. S.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Logan Bradley, recently promoted to Captain of the interstellar ship, Cruise Light, stood tall with his hands pressed firmly to his back in a regal posture as he surveyed the bridge of his fresh new vessel. His face was cleanly shaved, his jutting chin sticking out, and his chest puffed forward. The craft had departed his world hours ago, ripping through space and time thanks to a recent invention, the first of its kind: FTL framework engines. The design was a prototype to put it mildly. In all respects, Logan was almost absolutely sure his ship would not explode upon re-entry into normal space. Almost.
Logan wore the attire befitting a starship captain in the Terrace military. He wore a captain’s cap over a head of short brown hair. His suit, blue in color and simplistic in design, housed medals on his shoulders, and the Terrace insignia stitched onto his right arm. He bore a tattoo on that same arm in the same spot and with the same design. To say that he was dedicated to his craft was an understatement.
He smiled as he stared out into the sub-light space, a special domain that the FTL framework engines allowed his craft to enter. The same physical laws as those in normal space did not bind objects in this dimension. Funny. He would have just called it space twenty-four hours ago, but that fact had changed upon his newly appointed rank and the knowledge that humankind could travel to a nearby star in days rather than decades.
“BC,” he said. “Drop us out of sub-light space. I want to see this system with my own eyes.”
A young man looked up from the navigation console below Logan’s position. He was a wiry kid in his twenties with a passion for all things flight. Logan had selected BC, a short hand for Benjamin Carter, though most who knew him called him by the former label. It may have been unprofessional, but this was no ordinary voyage, and the boy had earned it. The maiden voyage of Cruise Light would be one of discovery in the face of eternity. Logan had no idea what the crew would find, let alone encounter, though it would probably not be intelligent light.
“Dropping out of sub-light now,” BC said. “Brace for the transition. It’s going to be jarring.”
It wasn’t much of a warning though. As the boy pulled Cruise Light out of FTL, Logan lurched forward a bit as he felt the vessel screech through the barrier between dimensions. Colors and a multitude of dancing lights jittered about the viewport screen until the image solidified into something less special and more ordinary, the unending blackness of deep space and the myriad of static lights. Logan blinked as he regained his composure and glanced up at the viewport screen in time to catch BC cursing under aloud.
“Evasive maneuvers!” Logan yelled.
Logan braced for the burst of kinetic force not even Cruise Light’s inertial dampeners could quell entirely. The ship leaned heavily to the right as BC pulled the craft from its impact course of an unknown planetoid. The G-force shot him from his former stance and smacked him against the railing three meters down.
Logan wasn’t able to recoup his stature until the deed had been done. BC eased up on the throttle and Cruise Light slowed to a halt at the edge of the Aquinas system. They had indeed exited sub-light space in the correct coordinates. His brief glance through viewport screen showed as much. Somehow, though, an unidentified planetoid had cropped up.
Logan stood back up and eyed BC. “What the hell was that?”
“It’s a … planet?” he replied, an uneasy pause in his words.
Logan lifted his cap and scratched his head. He would have been right, except that he couldn’t have been. The object was the size of a large moon, barely a hint of gravity but by no means a mere piece of space debris. Terrace observers would have spotted something that size, wouldn’t they?
“Allow me to offer my insight on this predicament, Captain.”
Logan turned to spot his chief scientist picking herself up off the bridge floor. Evelyn McKenzie or Doctor McKenzie as he would have normally called her. The woman, in her late thirties, carried herself with an air of superiority and well deserved at that. Her knowledge of galactic phenomena was exactly why he put in a good word for her recruitment. It wasn’t as easy as picking his pilot, though.
Terrace had their eyes on a number of scientists, but he did believe that Doctor McKenzie was the best one suited for this mission. Her mid-length blonde hair had begun to show strands of gray. McKenzie wore the same uniform as the rest of the crew but with a purple hue, noting the fact that she was a civilian expert. She pushed her glasses back into position and strode out onto the bridge floor beside BC.
“Benjamin,” she said. “Can you perform a topographical scan on the surface of that planetoid?”
“With my eyes closed,” BC replied.
“What’s this about Doctor?” Logan asked.
McKenzie nodded and exhaled. “Based on the size of the planetoid’s structure, I find relatively few avenues for our Terrace observers’ incompetence in the matter.” She walked toward Logan. “Realistically, something like this cannot happen. Our star charts for this system have been mapped, every planet and asteroid large enough to pose a threat to this vessel documented in triplicate.”
“So call it human error,” Logan insisted. “What’s the issue?”
“Sir, this is really weird,” BC said. “I don’t know how to explain what I’m looking at.”
Logan sighed and folded his arms. He shot a quick frustrated glance toward McKenzie before shaking his head.
McKenzie continued. “I don’t need to view his findings to tell you what he’s seeing Captain. The topographical map your pilot reviewed showed signs of patterns and man-made structures unique to intelligent life.”
“Goddammit,” Logan said. “It had to be aliens.”
“That’s about the size of it, sir,” BC said. “I don’t know what else to make of it, but the planetoid looks like a massive space station in the form of a wandering earth.”
“Propulsion?” Logan asked.
“Quiet for now,” BC said. “I don’t know how it moves, but I can’t identify any fuel sources.”
“Life forms, then?” Logan asked.
“Already beat you to the scan, sir. Unfortunately, nil. However, there’s a lot of magnetics blocking Cruise Light’s sensors. There could be life forms inside.”
“Understood,” Logan said.
“Captain,” McKenzie said. “As much as I would love to halt our voyage and investigate this new attraction, I must insist we stay our course. The possibility that these aliens operate anywhere near our level of technology is not statistically significant. On top of that, there’s a good chance we will be of little interest to them or worse, vermin.”
“Extermination doesn’t sit right with me either,” Logan said. “But if they’re above and beyond us already, it won’t matter if we continue to the Aquinas system, so we might as well check their vessel out. First contact seems inevitable either way.”
“I don’t recommend this, Captain. There are too many variables for you to draw such a simplistic conclusion.”
“Noted,” Logan said.
Logan decided to lead the expedition. His first officer insisted against it, but the formality of Terrace military operations ill sufficed in this sort of bizarre situation. At a time like this, whomever he came face to face with deserved to speak with a representative of the armed forces. He might not be able to speak for the world back home or the whole of the government, but amongst the crew of Cruise Light, he was the closest to an actual representative.
Logan set foot outside the air lock of a subterranean alien world, so to speak. It appeared like planetoid from the upper atmosphere, but as the ship neared, he found the surface formed by pipelines that stretched across the rocky outer shell, like literal veins for some mechanized monstrosity. Logan glanced back at his landing party, Doctor McKenzie, BC, and two of his security officers, Stinson Matthews and Ashley Carmine.
McKenzie may have insisted on parting ways prior to his decision, but once he began forming the away team, he couldn’t shake off her enthusiasm with a stick. McKenzie brought a briefcase packed with scanning equipment, and she wore her specialized spectacles for more immediate observation. BC led the pack with a frontline scanner, a device capable of a number of functions, such as chemical and tactile analysis. There was a chance worth investigating that forms of radiation or volatile chemical leaks might lurk aboard this alien vessel. He also needed BC to identify lifeforms with the scanner if necessary.
Stinson was an expert on linguistics, from spoken languages to gestural signs, which made him a prime candidate. Ashley, the cyborg of the group, utilized implants that effectively rendered her an empath across species lines. Logan tried not to think about the future of mechanical implants, but the Terrace military had only begun trials. Cybernetics hadn’t quite become as mainstream as prosthetics, and the technology was in its infancy, only becoming prominent since colonization of mars.
“Well, we’re in,” Logan said. “Any signs of life yet?”
“I don’t know,” BC said, walking ahead of the group.
From the outside of the airlock, the entry hall continued down about ten meters to a T-intersection. Logan placed the gloved hand of his spacesuit against the multifaceted tapestry of the station walls. His fingers curved across the ridges from inside his suit. The others followed close behind as he headed toward BC, who appeared to have his interest fixated on some kind of reading.
“Talk to me BC,” Logan said. “What is it?”
BC paused. He turned around to face the crew. “The atmosphere’s breathable at least.” He glanced down at his scanner. “It’s not a lifeform per se, but I am picking up a sizable energy reading from deeper inside, about one kilometer from our current position.”
McKenzie sighed. “That’s barely scratching the surface. It’s too easy, Captain. This is obviously a diversion set forward by alien interest.”
Logan twisted off his helmet and clipped it to his waist. He reached down to pat the butt of his R-3250 bolt rifle. The gun weighed a poultry five kilograms but packed a wallop. As long as he was firing toward the inside, he shouldn’t have an issue using it if the need arose, but he doubted it would come to that.
Two possibilities circled around in his head and both left him with a sore taste in his mouth. First, that whatever lifeforms had once existed on this vessel had all vanished for reasons he might never know. Second, that there existed a form of life BC’s scanners couldn’t quantify in terms Terrace culture had come to understand. There were alternative explanations, but those pegged him as the most prominent.
“Doesn’t matter at this point,” Logan said, resuming his stare toward the end of the hall. “They haven’t done in our ship yet, so they’re either unaware of our presence or they’re observing us.”
“Captain, the former is impossible, and the latter leaves many more questions unanswered.”
“Agreed,” Logan replied, nodding toward her. “That said, we have little choice but to play their game for now.”
Logan trekked through the eerie bowels of the planetoid station, following closely behind BC. The young man appeared fixated on the readings of his scanning equipment, maybe a little too much. It was great that the air was breathable, but considering the multitude of biomes across the galaxy, it didn’t make much sense that he should be able to take his helmet off in hindsight. Factors such as atmospheric pressure and the specific content of breathable atmospheres varied wildly even across Terrace environments.
“You’re thinking about something again,” McKenzie said.
Logan paused, though continuing his pace. “Just about what you told me. It seems to me they were prepared for our arrival. I don’t see how you can pump an earth centric atmosphere into a planet-sized ship in less than 24 hours.”
“I see,” she said. “So that’s what’s troubling you.” McKenzie picked up her pace to meet him by his side. She whispered something into his ear. “What makes you think they had 24 hours, Captain?”
She pressed her finger to her chin and looked up at the framework of piping and circuitry lining the walls of the station halls. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it before the words came out. Doctor McKenzie glared at BC up ahead, her face displaying a slight scowl. She believed his efforts were in vain. She was certain that whatever the aliens were, they would show themselves when they damn well pleased. She was probably right.
“Let’s be honest for a moment, Captain,” she said. BC continued ignoring her.
“Sure,” Logan said. “If you have something on your mind, Doctor, let’s talk.”
McKenzie cleared her throat. “Do you find it strange that a race of super beings saw fit to craft their interstellar vessel in the form of a planet?”
“Is there something wrong with the shape?” Logan asked.
“For one thing, it’s horribly inefficient, Captain. So many other forms would haul the same cargo for a fraction of the energy cost. Our benefactors have gone far out of their way to force their craft to resemble a stray world.”
Stinson chimed in. “It’s a deception, Captain.”
“I agree,” Ashley added. “Doctor McKenzie is right. The aliens built this ship to hide themselves from prying eyes.”
“Like our telescopes,” McKenzie said. “There’s a reason we haven’t found alien life or at least not this particular breed.”
Logan folded his arms and scratched his chin. He was hardly the most intelligent individual in the away team, but he was beginning to piece it together. They hid themselves because they too were observers. The aliens had prepared for this day, and it was a long time coming, but why?
Why watch a fledgling rock in the middle of nowhere? Could it be that Terrace was worth their time? Hell, maybe they were the only two species for lightyears or in the galaxy for that matter. Regardless, Logan shot McKenzie a glance to show his understanding and nodded his head. The good Doctor smiled, and for a brief moment, the two of them actually agreed on something.
“I hate to interrupt your privy chat, Captain,” BC said. “We’re about at their doorstep.”
Logan glanced ahead. “Excellent work, BC. Any more luck with your life form scans.”
“I’ve about given up on those,” he replied. “There’s definitely a good amount of activity on this station, but I doubt you’re going to find flesh and blood creatures.”
“Understood,” Logan said, briefly glancing back to McKenzie who shot him an ‘I told you so’ look. “Keep your wits about you and a hand on your sidearm. I don’t expect the next few minutes to be anything easy.”
BC pressed his hand against a console to the right of the massive metal doorway. The structure seemed almost indistinguishable from the rest of the wall, but the fine grooves around the edges gave it away in the end. The console lit up and blinked for a moment before a grinding sound screeched at his ears, and the steel block of a door slid open.
“Like the gates of Heaven,” Logan said.
“Or Hell,” McKenzie said, smiling.
BC stepped back and held his scanner to the freshly made opening. While BC performed his standard set of investigations, Logan stepped up and peered into the thick of the chamber. It had struck him that, while the nuances of the station appeared alien, the overall structure felt to him oddly Terrace in design. Terrace and these aliens might not have been so different at one time. That thought brought some warmth to his chest. Common ground was a good thing.
The innards of the chamber contained the bizarre energy disturbance BC detected from the landing party’s point of entry. The room stretched about fifteen meters from corner to corner, relatively small by comparison to the halls they had traversed on route. The walls were inlaid with a number of light emitters, and the ceiling was no different.
Aside from a multitude of spire-like structures and some broken down equipment stuffed into the nooks of the chamber, his attention fixated on a central machine. It was a hexagonal console revolving around a spire. Electrical energy ran through rings layered up the spine.
“A little retro, don’t you think?” Logan asked.
“Call it what you want, Captain, but that’s our beacon,” BC said.
Logan stepped inside, BC having assured him the readings were sound. He strode toward the console with his hand at his side, gripping the butt of his bolt rifle. However, Logan stopped as a screeching sound whipped past him like lightning as electricity poured over the spire and the bulbs circling around it. He took a step back, fearful he’d angered something beyond his ken, a god of sorts if the word sufficed in this situation.
“What’s happening, BC?” he shouted.
“I … I don’t know!” he said. “It’s a massive energy displacement. Mostly electricity. No radiation.”
“Is it dangerous?” Logan said.
BC shrugged. “I wouldn’t run up and lick anything, but we’re fine so far.”
“Watch this, Captain,” McKenzie said, striding up to him. “This is our first contact.” She pointed out some filaments gathering into a cluster near the console. “The dust exhibits a pattern.”
“Nano-machines,” Ashley said. “There’s definitely something intelligent about them, almost like a consciousness.”
“Do they mean us harm?” Logan asked.
“Not sure,” Ashley replied. “There are so many layers, like mental blocks. I can’t discern their intentions.”
Logan sighed. “Well, damn.”
“You knew something like this would come to pass when you organized the away team,” McKenzie said. “I suggest we make the best of an uncertain situation.”
“Right, I’ll …” Logan started but trailed off.
The collection of dust particles solidified into a human form, perhaps to facilitate ease of interaction. He sincerely doubted the aliens actually looked like humans, but he allowed the lie to take him over regardless. Logan sized up the creature, a gelatinous mass of smoke and bustling blackness in the form of a human being. It had copied the relative form of BC, or so he imagined.
The creature bore neither facial features nor expressions, but it did walk with a smooth gait. That was probably for show. As a collection of Nano-machines, it could hover if it desired. The being had gone out of its way to approach them, though it had put up enough of a fireworks display to instill some level of fear in their party. Logan folded his arms and eyed the being.
“Greetings from Terrace,” Logan said. “My name is Logan Bradley, Captain of Cruise Light. We mean you no …”
The creature interrupted his speech. “Go back to your sphere.”
“Excuse me?” Logan said.
The creature spoke again. “Return to your sphere. Your world. Your species is ill prepared to leave it.”
Logan stepped forward. “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but I can’t just turn back my ship. I have a mission, and I’m going to see it through or my head will roll.” The creature continued facing him. It had no eyes, but he guessed it was sizing him up. “Listen, maybe we got off on the wrong foot. I’m sure Terrace can offer something to your people.”
“We have observed enough,” the creature said. “Your sphere is in disagreement. You must be in agreement before we may allow your ships beyond your station.”
“You picked up on our language pretty quickly,” Stinson said. “How long have you been watching us?”
The creature cocked its head. “From the beginning.”
“Captain,” Ashley said. “I believe agreement is tongue in cheek for a more complicated expression. I suggest you inquire.”
“By all means,” McKenzie said, shrugging. “It wouldn’t hurt.”
“Fine,” Logan said. “What does it mean to be in agreement? How can we reach this state and maintain it?”
He stared down the mess of particles made manifest in Terrace form. The entity lacked any shred of sensibility or personable mannerisms. It paced around him with a mechanical stride and that damned blank empty stare. Eyes would have helped, though he figured everything on it was an eye of some kind. Logan imagined seeing in 360 degree vision or viewing everything in this planetoid station with absolute precision.
He had no doubt he was mingling with a super being beyond his abilities. Running would end in futility, and any arguments he might bring to the table would pale in comparison to its intelligence, but that wouldn’t keep him from trying. This was first contact, Terrace’s maiden voyage to another star. He wasn’t about to slip up in the face of uncertainty. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead, and the creature spoke at last.
“Agreement,” it said. “It is not something a collective can achieve through effort. There can be none of your kind with stray motives. All must work and act toward a common constructive end.”
McKenzie smiled and folded her arms. “That sounds awfully radical for a supreme being and equally boring.”
The creature looked at her. “Your sphere is not willing to sacrifice freedom for the sake of your propagation. You are a danger to yourselves and other spheres, which is why you must return.”
“Now, hang on, buddy,” Logan said. “I don’t believe you. There’s no way that …”
It cut him off. “Such is your choice. You will learn in time, or you will erase yourselves from the cosmos in spite. The surveyors will not allow your transgressions unchecked.”
Logan turned to Stinson. “Surveyors?” he asked. “Some kind of master race?”
“A collective, no doubt,” McKenzie said. “I venture that their peoples embraced the ultimate evolutionary leap.”
“Mechanization,” BC said. “This thing is too different. You can’t reason with it. At least, I don’t think you can. Doc?”
“I agree,” McKenzie said with a nod. “Seems we’re at a stalemate.”
Logan scratched his head and snorted in spite. “Well, we’re not turning back. Options?”
Logan glanced around at his subordinates, met with grim expressions and lack of resolve. No one had answers. For the first time in his career, a foe of impossible magnitude impeded him, and the frustration struck him deep inside. He shrugged off his building ego the best he could and approached the collection of Nano-machines. He offered his hand in a gesture of kindness. He even pulled off the gloved portion of his suit, revealing the fleshy substance underneath.
“Help me understand,” Logan said. “Everything I feel inside tells me that Terrace will live on, that we won’t endanger your collective. I want to see your point of view, so make it evident. You have that kind of power, don’t you?”
The creature froze all motor functions. It looked at him with an empty face as the particles buzzed about in the thick of its form. Good. It was thinking, or so he figured. Logan kept his forward stance, his arm outstretched. To his surprise, the entity raised its own appendage, a black formless arm with a hand that gradually formed fingers. Logan smiled. He’d done something, took the first step at getting through to a being so far removed from Terrace ideals that …
A massive heat and energy buildup. A stream of searing fire in the thick concentrated form a laser shot out from the creature’s newly formed index finger. It ripped through his side and tore a hole through his suit and the flesh inside. Logan cried out in pain and cursed as he dropped to his knees but not before a much louder cry echoed behind him through the chamber. On his knees and clutching his side, Logan turned in time to see Ashley’s body hit the floor, a chunk torn through the center of her upper abdomen.
Logan Bradley, Captain of Cruise Light, found himself in a precarious predicament. His mission to the fourth planet of the Aquinas system might never see its end. Sadly, he may never witness another sunrise. His hands pressed firmly onto the cold metal flooring, his right palm uncovered from his suit.
Blood stained the inlaid grooves of the floor as he continued the pressure against his rib cage. Blood loss would eventually take him, but damned if he was going to let it happen without a fight. Logan cursed under his breath as the shock began to set in. What had he done wrong? A slip of the tongue? A misappropriated phrase? No, the surveyors were too different. There was no recouping his losses.
“P … Please,” Logan said with a stutter. “Let us leave. We’ll go back and never …”
The sounds of laser fire cut his sentence short. Logan watched with wide eyes as the blue beam of a second-generation bolt rifle whizzed through the creature’s collection of body particles. It burst into a thick misty cloud; BC fired successive shots into the fray. Logan clutched his aching body and tried to stand in futility. BC ran over and snatched up his arm. The young man pulled him to his feet, despite his reluctance.
“Do I have to do everything myself?” BC shouted, hoisting him. “We need to get out of here now before …”
BC lurched forward mid-speech as something thin punctured him from behind, a black metal protrusion sticking out through his chest and suit layers. The needle stopped inches from Logan’s throat and gradually retracted, leaving him to catch his fallen friend. He forced himself up with the last of his strength as he shouldered BC’s body, a rage building inside of himself. He lacked the fundamental strength to do any more than stand where he was, but he stared down the multifaceted creature as it solidified once more. It cocked its head.
“You ask for this collective to make your truth evident,” it said. “Do you see now?”
Logan knelt down and laid BC’s body across the floor beside him. He shook his head and wiped the bit of tears from his eyes.
“No, I don’t see. All you’ve done is made us suffer for no good reason.”
McKenzie stepped up ahead of him, laying a hand on his shoulder before staring down the collective.
“I’ll field this one, Captain,” she said, turning to the creature. “I think I know what you wanted to prove, Surveyor. You wanted to show us that with the proper provocation, one of our kind can act in a chaotic manner.”
“Correct,” it replied. “In any given interstellar population, chaos becomes inevitable.”
“So long as said beings are free,” McKenzie said, folding her arms. “But we can police our own. I don’t see the problem with a few bad apples.”
“Your sphere is not yet interstellar,” the creature said. “Propagation and access to destructive technology expands exponentially following interstellar progress. Conventional restrictive efforts expand linearly. In ten centuries, you cannot police yourselves without restricting freedom absolutely.”
“I refuse to lay down what makes Terrace strong,” Logan stammered. “You can’t expect us to change our nature because of some self-posited eventuality.” He winced as he stood up. “We’ll fight for our right to explore other worlds. We’ll fight you as well.”
“Captain, I wouldn’t suggest …” McKenzie started, but Logan cut her off.
“No, this is where I make my stand. I’m sick and tired of this game. Terrace will not change to suit your needs. I don’t care what kind of galactic powers you have at your command. I will not relinquish my free will for the sake of your cosmic preservation.”
“Unfortunate,” it said. “We have observed spheres similar to Terrace, and all have ended in destruction. Would you allow your infection to spread across stars to sate your thirst? Would you let rogue factions within your civilization vaporize worlds and lesser peoples in the midst of chaos and disagreement?”
Logan huffed. “We would try to stop them.”
“Effort is insufficient,” it replied. “Your sphere must make the choice to come to agreement. There are many means of doing so, but you must do so.”
“Captain, this is over,” McKenzie said. “We have two dead, and you’re not going to last much longer unless we get you treated aboard Cruise Light.” She paused. “He doesn’t want to kill us all. He needs a few alive to send a message.”
Logan sneered at the creature but fell to the floor regardless. McKenzie set down her tools and grabbed him by the shoulder, hoisting him up beside her slender frame. McKenzie forced a smile as she helped him hobble toward the doorway. He didn’t bother to glance back at the creature, which he assumed remained at its station. The surveyors would not allow Terrace any further. The notion left a sour taste in his mouth as McKenzie and Stinson carried him through the kilometer of causeways. What would he say? What could he propose that would make his people listen? It was as if he’d hit a brick wall. For the first time in his life, Logan lacked the primal resolve that he’d come to know as integral to himself. He’d lost this battle. He was just going to have to get used to it.