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Contact Zero

by Jeremy Szal

part 1 of 2

‘All this fuss over a little black-out,’ Katherine Morgan murmured quietly, her voice echoing in the cramped area that served as Reminiscence’s bridge. ‘It’s really not worth our trouble.’

Ned Sullivan didn’t even bother to look up at his second-in command. ‘One black-out can turn the whole colony dark,’ he replied. ‘So yeah, it is worth our trouble.’

‘How did they even send a transmission?’ Brandon Fey asked, speaking for the first time in hours. The engineer-pilot was leaning back in the ship’s command chair, gazing out at the endless cyan tunnel of shockspace.

‘Back-up generator is my guess,’ Morgan replied. ‘They must have some juice left, right?’

‘I doubt it,’ Fey murmured, tinkering with a small gizmo on the bench. ‘But we’ll find out soon enough I suppose.’

Still, Morgan had a point. These simple repair missions took a large chunk of his time, and time was something he had less and less of nowadays. It’s just our luck the colony is so far away from Sol, he thought. If these were the types of missions he’d be overseeing in the future, then it was time to resign.

Actually he should have resigned years ago. Command had a nasty habit of handing out assignments that took far too long. And he had an even nastier habit of accepting them.

An alerting sound erupted in the bridge, jolting him out of his thoughts. Inverted red triangles urgently flashed on the screens.

‘Emerging from shockspace,’ Reminiscence’s AI, Amber, stated abruptly, ‘in ten, nine, eight, seven, six...’

‘We can count, thank you very much,’ Sullivan said, strapping himself into the captain’s chair and tightening the harness. Even after decades of experience the process of emerging from shockspace always tied his guts into bows. Not that it was something he would admit. Ever.

‘Humph. If you say so,’ Amber stated breezily. Before anyone could reply the cyan tunnel was whipped away like a yanked curtain, giving way to an endless void peppered with myriads of stars and asteroids.

‘There she be,’ Fey declared as Shorn came into view. It was much smaller than Sullivan thought it would have been. Much smaller. It was almost the size of a moon, except this ‘moon’ was a brownish yellow with a few rough patches of green. It looked pretty desolate.

The space around it was even less impressive. Clumps of chunky asteroids whirled around like drunken dancers in null-gee, pieces of wreckage from what was likely other ships hung aimlessly around garbage dumps. Sullivan was shocked. Launching garbage within the orbit of a planet? It was unheard of. Even smugglers took the time to dispose of their unwanted possessions properly. This is bad.

‘Looks like someone hasn’t been up to date with the housekeeping,’ Fey murmured as he prepared for ship for landing.

‘This is quite illegal,’ Morgan said, glaring at the rubbish as if it were to blame.

‘It’s not like anyone else is going to volunteer to clear it up,’ Fey remarked. ‘This is quite literally the middle of nowhere. A no-man’s land.’

No-man’s land, huh? Sullivan felt a nasty twinge of irony twist in his stomach.

* * *

Grey clouds and fog obscured their journey down to the ground, as if it was trying to hide the surface from outsiders. When the clouds parted, Sullivan couldn’t for the life of him think what the clouds could have been protecting. The planet was dry and dusty, caked with yellow and rusty-red sand. A steel and metal jungle lay smack in the middle of red desert sands. Tall, ugly buildings thrusted upwards like spikes, scraping against the clouds above them.

‘Jesus,’ Fey whispered, looking over the desolate landscape. Sullivan smiled at the name. Suddenly he had a newfound appreciation for the man who had strode around for forty days in a sandy hell. I just want to get the hell out of here as soon as possible.

Turning to the right, Sullivan noticed a small forest, the vibrant green leaves standing out from the repetitious colours that the planet had to offer. As the ship approached the ground, he saw a cluster of sheds and little tin shacks lined in messy rows along a long concrete slab. Sullivan shook his head, secretly wondering who he had pissed off to get assigned to this hellhole.

The ship settled softly on her dampers, the engines quieting down slowly.

‘We have arrived at our destination,’ Amber began. ‘Thank you very much for flying Amber Artificial Intelligence Airlines.’

‘That joke’s old,’ Morgan grumbled, unstrapping herself from the chair, ‘and it wasn’t funny to begin with.’

Sullivan secretly smirked. There was a reason why he always made sure Amber came along with them; she was amazing company. By rights she should have been an it, but Sullivan refused to call his AI a series of meaningless numbers and letters as if the computer were some sort of servant. To him Amber was just as, or even more human than the rest of the crew.

‘Hmm. This place has an average temperature of twelve degrees Celsius,’ Amber was saying. ‘Not that I’m an expert on a good climate, but doesn’t Earth have a much higher average?’

As human as she may have seemed, she would never really know the difference between hot and cold, the flaming burn of fire and the cold kiss of ice. She might have known the stats, but she would never actually feel them.

Then her statement hit him. ‘Can you confirm that? Twelve degrees?’

‘Twelve degrees’ Amber repeated, ‘although it seems the oxygen levels are around the same level, if not a tad higher. I’d suggest you take a thermal suit, minus the helmet.’

‘Strange,’ Morgan remarked as she suited up. ‘No one’s come out to greet us.’

‘We’re just the repair guys,’ Fey said. ‘I doubt they’ll roll out the big ol’ red carpet for us.’

‘Doesn’t matter. We have a job to do,’ Sullivan said, removing Amber’s chip from the control panel and inserting it into a mini-speaker. He then carefully popped it in his pocket. Now the AI would be able to travel with them. Procedure dictated that an AI remain docked at the ship at all times, but Sullivan didn’t want to leave her behind. The AI was known to get up to mischief when she was bored.

Even with the exo-suit, the icy winds of Shorn hit him at full force. The sand slashed and bit at his face like thousands of little insects. Sullivan had to pull the hood over his head in order to look up. He noticed a large warehouse-like landing center that would likely be the control base. He yelled for them to advance, but his voice was useless against the howling wind. He broke into a run, hoping that they would have the sense follow him to shelter.

By the time they reached the base, it was less windy, and Sullivan was able to speak properly. A set of automatic sliding doors stood obstinately in their path, refusing to open.

‘The first thing we find on this planet, and it’s broken,’ Fey muttered. ‘No wonder they’re having problems.’

Almost as if hearing his disapproval, a blue beam of light shimmered out a small hole above the door, scanning them. Sullivan recognized an outdated model of an ID scanner as the blue light lazily swept up and down their bodies.

‘Unknown personnel. Access Denied,’ the androgynous AI said. ‘A staff member has been notified and will be along to assist you shortly. Thank you for your patience.’

‘You’d think it would recognize staff of the United Sovereign Colonies,’ Fey growled.

Sullivan had to admit that it was strange, but there wasn’t much they could do except wait for someone to open the door manually for them.

Almost half an hour dragged by, and no one came. Sullivan’s patience was slipping away like grains of sand in an hourglass. A bad simile, he mused, considering the desert around him.

‘You know, I’m pretty sick of waiting,’ Fey muttered, climbing to his feet. ‘Let’s try something new.’

‘Like what?’ Morgan asked. Fey didn’t respond. He drew his leg back and kicked at the door, shattering the glass like thin slices of crystallized sugar. He stepped through gingerly.

‘You stupid son of a bitch,’ Morgan hissed, ‘we’re here to fix their stuff, not break it!’

Fey shrugged. ‘You can wait there if you like. I’m done sitting around.’

Sullivan didn’t approve of the engineer’s actions, but he could hardly blame the man for losing his cool. Carefully avoiding broken shards stuck to the frame, he stepped through the shattered door and inside onto a polished white floor.

The warehouse was a lot smaller than Sullivan imagined it would be and a lot less clean. Bags of rubbish were carelessly thrown all over the floor, the windows were grimy and splattered with dust, and what seemed to be dry cement coated the floor like icing sugar on a cake. It puffed angrily as he walked through it, filling the air with mushroom smoke.

‘Anyone home?’ Fey called out, his voice echoing eerily through the hallway. There was no response. Sullivan walked over to the control panel, but like everything else it was coated with a thick layer of dust and dry cement. It didn’t seem to be operable.

‘You know, you could plug me into the system,’ Amber’s muffled voice said. ‘It’d give me something useful to do.’

I knew bringing her along would be a good idea. Sullivan slid his hand into his pocket and removed the thumb drive, plugging it into the dock. A moment later the system completely powered up, the lights flashing vividly like attractions at an amusement park as Amber burrowed through the system.

‘Hmm... very interesting,’ Amber murmured.

‘What is it?’ Morgan demanded.

‘This terminal has been left untouched for weeks,’ Amber replied, ‘25 days, to be exact.’

What?’ First the faulty system, the lack of a proper landing site, the filthy control center, and now this?

‘I think something really bad happened here,’ Amber whispered, her voice sounding eerie through the outdated speakers. Sullivan could have sworn a similar scenario played out in an old film he had watched last night. He was almost expecting to see rotting corpses and blood appear on cue.

Suddenly a second set of external speakers jumped to life, bursting with static. ‘Who’s there? Can anyone hear me?’

Sullivan strode over to the rusty mic, praying it would work. ‘This is Captain Sullivan of the USC Reminiscence. Do you read me?’

‘What are you doing here?’ the voice hissed.

So much for gratitude. ‘We’re here to repair your power arrays,’ Sullivan replied. ‘Your system sent out an automated message.’

There was silence on the other end for a few moments. ‘Oh, so you don’t know?’

‘Don’t know what?’ Sullivan demanded.

Silence again. Was he being told what to say? Was he waiting for a sign?

‘We have a bit of a situation here.’

You don’t say? ‘Like what?’ Sullivan demanded.

‘Some kids went missing a few days ago,’ the voice said. ‘Near the market courtyard on the edge of the city. Find them and bring them back.’

‘Why can’t you do it?’ Sullivan demanded. ‘You said they were missing for days.’

Silence. Then, ‘I’ll explain why. Just find the kids and come to our building.’

‘Which building?’ Sullivan asked. ‘There are dozens.’

‘But only a few that have back-up generators,’ the voice replied. ‘I’m sending your AI the coordinates.’

‘How do you know we have an AI?’ Sullivan asked suddenly. He didn’t like how the voice at the other end knew more than he was letting on.

‘I’m the lead technician for the systems,’ the voice replied. ‘It’s my job to know.’

‘All right. We’ll see you soon.’

The only response he got was the hollow hiss of static.

‘So we’re abandoning orders, are we?’ Morgan asked.

‘When orders mean leaving people to die, kids most of all, they aren’t worth following,’ Sullivan responded.

‘To use a cliché,’ Amber murmured, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’

Sullivan sighed loudly. ‘Don’t make me regret bringing you.’

* * *

‘This place tops everywhere,’ Fey said, his voice echoing through the tent-like tunnel that seemed to stretch like some sort of metro, connecting the several city sectors together. He kicked out at what seemed to be dry mud. ‘And I’ve been to some really bad places.’

‘I don’t doubt it,’ Morgan murmured.

Sullivan would have liked to join in on the banter, but he couldn’t afford to fool his nerves into thinking it was all peachy cream and well. Something terrible had happened here. But what was it? A massacre? An infection? A terrorist invasion? The lashings of dry blood on the walls, half-eaten corpses and bloodied weapons had failed to appear. As strange as it was to admit it, he would have found it more comforting if he had seen such sights. It would have told him what to expect. But the planet gave him nothing.

They came to the outside of the tunnel and found themselves in a small square, like an outdoor market. There was no wind here, and it was a lot warmer, but no less filthy. Sullivan could see rows of what looked like small sheds. Beyond that he could see a dry forest. It was probably the patch of green that he had seen from the ship. Its trees were covered with scratches, as if a wild animal had used them to sharpen its claws.

‘What the hell...’

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Jeremy Szal

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