Brett P. S.
Commander Blaine grimaced, tapping his foot as he eyed the rustic glow of the bunker floor mixed with cracked granite and drizzling dirt from the landmass above their heads. He spat out the sour taste in his mouth while Lt. Faust worked her deft hands on the array of explosives by her feet. He regarded her work. She’d crouched down, a utility knife in one hand and a digital scanner in the other. The tools cast a glimmer against her pale skin and tied-back auburn hair.
Commander Blaine and his crew of two more waded through awkward silence while Faust prepped the explosives, nodding at the dim blackness of an alien bunker on a forgotten world. No intelligent life to speak of, not anymore. Vines peeked through crevices in the firmament, sprawling and crawling over what once was a civilization. The scent of mold hung high in the air, filtered through the breathing mask of his EV suit.
They wore the red and gold colors of the Union, form-fitting suits akin to latex that protected them from a variety of environmental hazards. Toxins, bacteria, and a degree of radioactivity, in case these poor denizens went out with a mushroom cloud. Initial scans of the surface came up negative, but one never knew what dangers lurked below the rock and down the steps.
“Union spares no expense, huh, Commander?”
Blaine cocked his head. Ensign Meyers stood half a meter behind him, much too close for comfort. Blaine shot him a cold stare and as a reflex, the young man stepped back. Blaine shrugged, returning to eye the Lieutenant’s work.
“Sorry, Commander,” Meyers said. “I spoke out of turn.”
Blaine sighed and waved his hand dismissively. “It’s all right, son. Place gives me the creeps too.”
Meyers was a bulky man, filling his EV suit to the brim with musculature and raw fighting potential. If there was a peak of the male physique, he had to be damn close. Despite his blessings, the young man carried the confidence of a dust mite. Blaine had to remind himself to take it easy on him. He’d forgotten how much of himself he saw in the Ensign.
Meyers stepped up beside him, following his line of sight to the bomb. A controlled blast would take out the door and probably render the rest of the facility intact. Probably. He’d left that part out of the briefing, though Faust could tell by now.
Meyers cleared his throat. “Commander, permission to follow up some questions, sir?”
Blaine raised an eyebrow. “More answers than your briefing entailed?”
Meyers nodded. “I want to clarify a few things.”
Good. He’s growing some backbone.
“Go ahead,” Blaine replied.
“Commander, I don’t see the point of this investigation crew. The planet outlived its inhabitants by a millennium. We don’t need their chronicled history to set up shop in an old lot.”
Faust halted her process. The background noise of her meticulous labors had become so paramount to the atmosphere of the chamber that it struck them by surprise. She rose to her feet and wiped her gloved hands on the side of her EV suit, smearing a stain of melted plastic from the heat shrink tubing.
“A good clarification, Ensign,” she said, her accent faintly German. “Sad to say, the Union would have agreed with you prior to the past decade, but recent …” she paused, pressing her finger to her chin, “… discoveries had come to light. The Union no longer takes any chances in matters such as this.”
Blaine shook his head. “Think about it this way, son. You just bought a new house on the prairie. You’d want to know if a nest of wasps set up camp in your backyard, wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so,” Meyers replied.
“Well, then,” Faust said. “Just replace the Commander’s wasps with lingering disease, bacteria, viruses, or any manner of civilization ending phenomena and you’ll grasp the picture quite quickly.” Her words struck Blaine with some tension as well. The Lieutenant continued. “Men come and go, but countries do not fade from the mists of time so easily. It takes more than an act of God to wipe a world clean. It takes a supreme act of ignorance.”
Meyers slunk back, his posture uneven. “I’ll remember to keep my mouth shut around the Lieutenant, Commander.”
“Don’t mind her,” Blaine said with a chuckle. “She’s always a buzz kill.”
The Lieutenant smiled warmly. “The bomb is operational. I suggest we move to a safe distance and watch out for shards from the blast.”
A clattering bang struck Blaine’s eardrums as smoke and ash filled the air and burned at his EV suit. He wiped the glistening shards off his shoulder and rose to his feet. His crew followed suit. Down the hall, in the chamber where the lost Andros housed their last remaining stores of knowledge and history, smoke billowed from the exit wound, an open scar in the history of a fallen people.
Blaine strode down past walls of granite and steel interwoven to a mixture that did poorly to keep the encroaching vines at bay. He placed his hand on the charred hunk of metal outlining the entrance and peered inside. Wisps of smoke swept past his eyes, but once the dust settled, Blaine regarded the spectacle of flashing lights with reverence.
“Good to see it intact,” Faust said, stepping past him and into the chamber. She glanced back and smiled. “I was afraid the damage would prove too extensive.”
“Damaged,” Meyers started from behind Blaine. “Hell, it’s pristine.” His words trailed off into a lengthy pause. “Uh, what is it exactly?”
Blaine stepped inside. “It’s a knowledge base. Historically, most eras find some way to record their history. For late stage, pre-stellar folks, that usually ends up in a networked digital archive.”
Columns of computer towers lined the interior of a room barely big enough to house a family of five. Flashing lights in a myriad of green, red, and yellow hues, and buzzing whizzes and blips populated the walls. The noise filled his ears with nostalgia from the old Union days of server rooms and printed acrylic panels.
Faust waved her digital scanner across a number of towers across the length of each while Blaine visually scanned the chamber for a control console of some kind. Grinning, he found a black, vacant screen and walked over to it. Blaine thumbed around the object that stuck out from the wall and kept an open sense for a power button.
“Commander, what’s the Lieutenant looking for?” Meyers said.
“Not looking,” Blaine said. “She’s lifting linguistic information from the tower network.”
“I’ve gathered enough,” Faust said, stepping back. “Translations should override in a few seconds, both written and verbal. Bear in mind auditory translations will be a bit delayed.”
“Understandable,” Blaine said. “I’m just glad it works.”
A switch clicked on the side of the lifted console and the black screen flickered to white, then to black again. This time, however, a series of characters strung along the side. The shapes seemed alien, just a collection of dashes, geometric forms, and squiggles his mind couldn’t process. Then, the translator kicked in and his EV suit implant filled in the gaps.
“She’s warming up,” Blaine said. “Give it a few seconds, and we’ll have what we came for.”
“What do you think killed them off?” Meyers asked.
“Dunno,” Blaine replied. “Lieutenant?”
The Lieutenant grimaced, folding her arms. “I’m getting this feeling, like I don’t want to know.”
The console screen flickered on into a blue and gold main menu, fitted with on-screen buttons that read words like ‘Diagnostics,’ ‘Home,’ and ‘Reboot,’ but the button Blaine pressed was labeled ‘Archives’.
“Good choice,” Faust said. “If they’re good, they’ll be dated.”
“Wouldn’t this planet have a completely different year and month setup than we do?” Meyers said.
Faust sighed. “Yes, unfortunately, but it won’t matter. Numerical headings should descend from the last date recorded.” She reached forward to scroll down the list of text titles that looked like logs. “Here, this one should give us an idea.”
“Good work,” Blaine said. “We’ll check it out. In the meantime, you lift the data from the most recent logs.”
Faust set her scanner atop the console. “It will do the task itself. I want to watch.”
“Suit yourself.” Blaine pressed down on the latest log heading and a video feed buffered. Video logs, eh? How many more would follow the same format and where the history lessons began. More likely, these pieces were peppered in with the segments of the most recent decades.
The video feed rendered a bright blue and gold room with a metallic sheen. An alien humanoid, purple skin and stalks for eyes, stood facing the recording equipment. Soft noises of coughing and unintelligible murmurs permeated the background while the alien spoke in a deep, guttural tone.
“Officer’s log, tenth sun of the second moon in the 1022nd year of the Giver. High Command drags on its last legs. The constructs cannot be stopped. They consume, and they flourish.”
Blaine paused the video feed. “Constructs?”
“Translation error,” Faust said. “In most cases, the translation works well, but I think based on the context data from my scanner, a better word is nanites.”
“Why not just say nanites then?”
“Apologies, Commander,” she replied. “They most likely aren’t nanites by any liberal definition. The constructs may be too biologically based or too large. We should listen further.”
“Agreed.” Blaine thumbed the console, and the specter resumed his speech.
“They have ripped away my life mate and most of my kin. This facility is all that remains of the Andros, our last stand against the whims of our devilish creation. It does not think. It does not feel. It only consumes and flourishes.”
The video feed cut off. Blain scrolled through the subsequent headings in the list of logs.
“They’re a personal account,” he said.
“More like last words,” Meyers said, stepping back. “Commander, I don’t like this.”
Blaine cocked his head. “Calm down, Meyers. You’re fine.”
He raised up his arm and dialed the wrist communicator laced into the skin of his EV suit. Before he pressed the call button, however, Faust reached forward and grabbed his wrist. Out of line. What was she thinking?
“Commander, think for a moment,” she said. “If the log means anything, then there’s a good chance we’re already infected.”
“Infected?” Meyers said, his voice shrill.
“I said, you’re fine!” Blaine turned to face the Lieutenant. “Listen, infected or no, that’s nothing the boys on base can’t fix.”
“You’re risking more than our lives, Commander.”
“I’m not committing suicide for the sake of your little theory, Lieutenant.” He pressed the call button. “This is Commander Cedric Blaine calling Union Vessel Lazuli. Requesting an extraction shuttle on the surface by my coordinates.”
He paused, looking back at Meyers, who’d begun to shiver from the shock. Sure, the kid was timid, but he’d never known him to … his thoughts trailed off, and he realized that he still had his hand pressed on the call button.
“We think we might have encountered some contagion. We’ll need a quarantine shuttle.”
Faust shook her head dismissively. “I hope your faith in the Starlight Union is well placed, Cedric. In my experience, this is how it begins.”