Chapter one: The 5th Descent
The air was stale and my surroundings silent. Save for the slight static on my communication link and my own light breathing. The light was dim and I had not yet adjusted to the light, I would soon almost prefer that I didn’t. All of my senses were in disarray in the 0 gravity environment around me, held down only by a safety harnesses. The strange detachment would only last moments more; we would soon be entering the atmosphere of a planet dubbed “Echo Ruin”. The “echo” was phonetic for the letter E. Every planet was given a letter and then a name to organize the planets by sector and then a name to describe it. Echo however suited the planet well; the planet was only an echo from the past. There were 6 of us in the small personnel bay of the touch and go drop ship. The captain was the only one not strapped in yet, he had yet to check the harnesses of his troopers. His boots made silent pounding against the floor as his feet locked magnetically to the hull.
The turbulence was becoming more apparent, and the bulky environmental expedition suit trapped in that steal cage of a ship only added to my feelings of claustrophobia. The captain must have picked up on my breathing patterns because he sent out a private message on the radio calmly saying: “Renton, take deeper breaths, I don’t want you passing out before we touch down.”
I merely nodded and concentrated on my breathing. I had no inclination to call him sir, for I was only a civilian engineer contracted to observe the drop sights. I was to access the civilization inhibiting the planet prior to the “wipe-out”. The Perseus sector of the Milky Way contains hundreds of surprisingly habitable planets. All of which were void of sentient life and full of decaying ruins. Tests have proved that they all the civilizations vanished near the same time, based on plant growth and ruin patterns.
I had to decide if it was worth staying and salvaging technology. It hurt my pride ever so slightly to be tasked as an engineer to salvage the junk of a long gone civilization and make something of it. They could just hire me to make something. I’m good at it, really. Instead, here I am, continuing the long tradition of scavengers as the human race.
This was only my fifth time out on an expedition to the planet surface, and although not part of the military, I was still given the same gear a Trooper carried. I won’t complain because although it weighs several hundred pounds, and is extra bulky with expedition and environment safety gear, it carried its own weight, mine, and then 500 more pounds. That is if I ever need to pick up that much weight; I’m sure I can leave grunt work to the grunts. It was nice knowing I could lift a car, but Captain Mason could bench five hundred pounds, in turn, with the exoskeleton on he could lift a staggering 1000 pounds, and he made sure his soldiers were capable of the same. I’m not a strong man by any means, but I pride myself in the fact that I’m quite fit despite how little physical effort is required by my profession.
My mediation was interrupted by the unbearable heat of the hull and the violent shaking from the turbulence. My breathing was becoming shallower and block spots were clouding my vision. Just as unconsciousness was taking hold, the violent shaking eased as we descended toward the surface. My seat became more and more tangible as gravity pressed me more and more into it.
The same routine was started again, unbuckle harness, buckle gear, check, check, and shuffle to the door followed by a small jump. I was out last, and the soldiers formed a perimeter around the ship, protecting it from ghosts of the past. I hopped down, my visor tinting further against the new brightness from the two suns, and my vision was even further impaired by the dust and leaves kicked up by the turbines of the personnel craft. The captain gave a small wave of his hand and the cage began to ascend into the sky.
I shouldered my rifle, reminded myself of how poor of a shot I was, even with the aim assist targeting computer in the suit. I activated my sound input so I could hear the alien environment around me. It was still silent except for the sound of a breeze and rustling leaves. The trudging of boots was added to the peaceful medley as we set a path into the ruins.
I pulled out my W.R.E.D. handheld device and began scanning for technology evolved passed the steam age. I pulled a large machete from a sheathe belted to the small of my back and prepared for any violent tree roots or oversized hedges. It was a great for hacking away useless plant life, or limbs.
Hours had passed; still the only sound coming from our heavy steps and the new humming sounds of the air coolant systems built into the suits. Outside my iron fortress, the temperature had just peaked at 130 degrees. It was probably better that nobody talked. It was hot even in the suits, and that could lead to easily disgruntled soldiers, who were armed to the teeth. I had a knack for irritating people with my dry sarcasm. The heat will bring out the worst in all of us. However, it was going to cool soon, as one of the suns had just set.
We had already established the air as breathable, but the planet was still fairly new to us, and better not to expose ourselves to the unknown pathogens on this planet. The 7 foot (give or take) suits were built specifically to counteract every single hostile environment, pathogen, or ailment. That’s the reason for the mute feature on the helmet, there was a planet discovered where all the creatures communicated with frequencies that could lead to mind control, or profuse vomiting. The suits were built to last as well; they could stay active for thousands of years thanks to the chunk of plutonium in the suits mini-reactor. They could recycle air, and keep a human alive for 256 days without food or water. They were nothing like the combat model. The combat types were a foot shorter and streamlined for maximum strength agility, protection, and not built to last, they normally didn’t last longer than a few hours anyway.
I kept banging my shoulders and knees on the stone debris in the tight corridors of the ruin. To my dismay, the trooper team behind me was maneuvering stealthily through the ruins without so much as a single scratch or dent. Perhaps it came out of their paycheck.
Given, I was at least a head taller than the other troopers with the added height of the perfectly tailored exoskeleton. The captain was an amazing 7’9, and even he managed to remain unscathed.
I hacked away more crimson roots that had ailed the stone path we were taking. I managed to expose a large outdoor stairway that led up a hill into a large domed structure. At first glance, even surrounded by large red “trees”, it seemed to be an observatory. I counted several stories from the amount of gaping eyeholes for windows. The opening at the top of the stairs was dark, and I flicked on my lights as Mason motioned for the team to form into a phalanx and begin the assault on the abyss above. I stopped just at the top and observed the planet under me. The crimson trees, with their metallic bark, had grown over everything that could have been a building. Minus the trees it almost seemed a stone replica of New York from pictures I saw from hundreds of years ago. I saw what were once skyscrapers, bridges, roads, and maybe even houses. All completely taken by nature, the blood trees grown over everything with their blue leaves scattered all throughout the gaps. It blended beautifully with the surprisingly blue sky. I turned and entered the blackness in front of me.
Chapter 2: P.I .3257 A.D.
“Private investigator Lauren Stryker, that’s me. Need to find something or someone missing? Then you’ve come to the right place.” I remember saying into the holographic telephone terminal.
“Lauren it’s me, Meko” came the reply.
“Let me guess Meko, you’ve lost another probe and you want me to find it before your boss finds out?” I replied. Meko had already lost track of four probes for the Interplanetary research Commission. I didn’t blame him either, he had 100 probes under his attention, and tracking them over the far reaches of space wasn’t an easy task. His boss thought so, however, and threatened to fire Meko after the first time he lost a probing vessel. I had managed to find all 4 vessels and keep Meko at his job.
“Send the details and I’ll get started on it right now, usual pay of course.” I replied.
“Thanks again Laura, expect a tip this time.” Said Meko as he pushed his wire framed glasses up to the bridge of his nose and hung up. He was a short man, balding slightly, and sporting old fashioned spectacles. I always found it interesting that he would choose to wear those remnants of the past instead of going to the clinic on the floor below his and having his vision corrected in a few minutes. He wore them because they were actually an heirloom belonging to his great grandfather. Coincidently the same poor vision runs in the family. They did add a certain amount of wisdom to his appearance.
The terminal beeped, signaling that the data from Meko had arrived. I began reading the information on the floating holographic display. The coordinates were close to home so I began running computer simulations for possible flight paths of the unmanned research vessel. Meko had sent me approximations of the velocity and coordinates before it went missing, and the computer took those into account along with gravity from celestial bodies. A probe can become lost if it impacts space debris and the tracker is knocked out, exceeds maximum sensor distance, or it falls into a nearby planet. The simulations would find all the possible events that the probe experienced and give me very precise locations for each outcome. Thus far there had been a surprisingly low number of results, just 3 in fact. That number would rise soon, but normally by this point there should have been hundreds of possible locations.
Final Result: 5 possible locations.
“This is going to be a cake walk; I can do this job in a few hours.” I exclaimed.
The results were as follows:
1. Fallen into the orbit of a planet called Ruin and crashed on the surface at points <312,319,24>
2. Had its array knocked out in space at coordinates <234,2134,23445> and is idling, waiting for a recovery craft in the Perseus sector
3. Exceeded maximum tracking/ manual steering distance, shut down and is drifting along a flight path of <234,2134,2344> and continuing in a straight course
4. Taken into the orbit of a dual sun gravity field, in which case its destroyed ( Meko will have to pay under the table for a new one, along with my fee, ouch)
The results were nice and tidy, except for the final result. The computer was very accurate and it astounded me that there was a result that even it could not explain. The thought frightened me a bit, but I shoved this thought aside. I had much to experience to have such fears. This would be my 100th case, an exciting day to be sure.
The next few hours were spent fueling my small craft and gathering supplies, flight permits, travel permits, permits, permits, permits. Ugh, it amazed me how much paperwork it takes to fill out before I can set out on one trip. Especially since I do this so often, you think that by now after so many trips they wouldn’t need all of my personal information and credentials. I was a certified pilot and could fly anything from a fighter jet to a frigate class warship, which is why it irritated me so much that I keep have to doing so much paperwork. And frankly, why is it still printed on paper, the IRC on Harvest had digital files, you never had to carry out 10 pounds of papers.
I left the flight regulations building with a large stack of stamped permit forms, and in a huff as I normally do. I tried to relax the shoulders which had tensed up to my ears and enjoy the day. The streets were bustling with people and cars. Cars both land based and air based were casually cruising around at speeds of just 300. It was a nice bright day in Forge city. The metropolitan utopia stretched miles into the sky and the buildings reflected the beauty of the blue sky. I had always loved this planet ever since I moved here from Harvest, a small farming planet. The beauty of the city planet never once ceased to amaze me. It was once a very dirty planet, a hub for industry. The sky had been blackened and soil reduced to ash, but after a course of a few years it evolved from an ash pile into a bustling utopia. The factories torn down to make way for pinnacles of human society that reached into the heavens themselves.
I walked into the hanger garage closing the sliding door behind me with a clang and beamed proudly at my ship, the “Difficult Victory”, I called him Victor for short. I built him myself, from parts I salvaged at junkyards, and parts I had to purchase when I was a pilot in the F.C.P.D.
My boss at the police department, Jeffry Soule, was a good man; he helped, and encouraged my dream to become an independent space pilot. He even helped me track down parts for my ship. Don’t be fooled, even though I built it from scrap, Victory is a force to be reckoned with. He and I had won several races that had taken place on the planet surface and in intergalactic races. I didn’t have a medal that was less than bronze, and I was competing with organizations whose sole purpose was racing. Victory had been made from several fighter jets as well as parts from large personnel carriers. He functioned well as a racer, fighter, and transport. It fits my job for private investigator, because I often need all of these traits in my ship. I realized I had been standing in the doorway of the hanger grinning stupidly at my ship still clutching the file pile in my arms. My mechanic, Mac, gave me a confused look as he walked by, and I blushed slightly and made a brisk pace towards my ship, dropping the papers on a desk on the way.
Still admiring the red hull, I remembered my father. He had taught me how to be a mechanic, that’s what he and I did on Harvest. I was a certified mechanic before I could talk. I built and repaired all types of machinery, whether it flew at high speeds, or rolled at a walking pace. After moving to Forge, I became a mechanic at a young age and that got me a mechanic job in the F.C.P.D. That led further into a pilot license. Soon I was the youngest female pilot ever in the forge city police department at an age of 17. I couldn’t fly assault craft or recon craft, but I was allowed to fly medical response and transportation units. At 19 I was fully accepted into the F.C.P.D. and I could legally be certified to fly assault craft. I liked those the most, they went fast. Very fast.
My father approved, but my mother was always skeptical about me getting an interplanetary flight license. She wasn’t comfortable with the fact that I would be light-years away from her. Nonetheless they support me.
Brushing away a wayward bang from my eyes, I figured it was time to depart. I grabbed the monster stack of papers and headed up the ramp into my ship.
Chapter 3: Before the Storm
Inside the great dome was a huge network of vines and crystals interlinked with what could have been computers of some sort. I restrained the troopers from cutting away any plants. This was an important room and it should remain untouched until it can be analyzed. I found that some roots and vines were almost… plugged into the terminals. Odd, this room was vacant of weeds, trees, and critters. All of the other buildings had been overtaken by good old Mother Nature.
I began scanning for technology but the readings on my W.R.E.D. came up negative. It scanned for radio waves, minuscule amounts of electricity and radiation. The trees however, were charged with solar energy of course, my W.R.E.D. picked up photosynthesis to because it was similar to solar gathering technology.
Oh. The vines were plugged into the terminals. The trees were collecting light, all over the ruined city. Could it be? Mother Nature hadn’t taken over. The denizens of this place had it laid out nature into a massive solar grid. The crystals must have been some kind of fuse. It was genius really.
I tried to explain my theories to the troopers. Few seemed impressed and continued sharpening their blades, or looking down the sights of their guns at the shadows. Mason and another trooper, Sean I believe, seemed genuinely impressed however.
“You mean to say, that all this time we thought it was a ruin, overgrown by years of foliage, but It could have been here all along?”
“YES!” I exclaimed, “This is a big discovery, this planet could have been teeming months ago, or centuries ago. All of the theories will have to change.”
“Metal trees, I’ll bet they were genetically engineered to become better conductors” commented Sean.
“Very smart Kid, this whole city is powered by nature; I think I may have an idea of what all these rocks and crystals are too.” I said quickly, I was on the verge of something big, and the gear head side of me was bursting with joy.
“Whoa son, we only have 15 minutes left in our mission time, I’ll mark the coordinates, but you’ll have to continue working tomorrow” said Mason as he clasped my shoulder.
My jaw gaped, and I stood in a stunned silence. Dumfounded I wondered how fate could be so cruel. My gear head was screaming for me to fight Mason and ward of his demon soldiers so I could activate the array of wires and crystals in the center of the room. Logic soon took over, and I nodded and stared at my feet.
“Sorry kiddo, but at least you’ll have something to present to doctor Hale this time” mason said sympathetically.
That was a comfort on its own, I hadn’t provided conclusive research to Doctor Hale yet, and it shamed me that I hadn’t been able to do so. I would finally be able to present something to my mentor. But I would be so giddy there’d be no sleep in my near future.
I nearly hopped all the way back to the shuttle, now admiring all of the foliage and randomly scattered stones. I took extra care to detour away from roots, avoiding having to cut them. The city was now one big mechanism to me, my gloom from unsuccessful expeditions was clearing. My mind active, I now began to see all that debris as lights or signs, maybe even circuit boards. The random pebbles on the ground became switches and keys. My mind was teeming and I hardly even noticed the arrival of my shuttle transport, the gleaming hull reflected me hopping into the ship, only excluding my happy grin concealed within the helmet.
My heart racing on the prospects of the future I had forgotten to keep regular breathing patterns and I soon lost myself into blissful unconsciousness. My last image was of Captain Mason, his chest rising and falling irregularly. The jerk was laughing; he knew I was going to pass out.
I was awakened by a painfully bright light that reminded me of the surgery I had when I was a boy.
“I must be in the sick bay” I thought.
I shifted myself to be on my side, a dark silhouette was hunched over a desk, left arm moving in a regular pattern from left to right. He must have noticed I was looking his way because he swiveled his chair around.
“Finally awake I see!” exclaimed the man as he threw his hinds in the air. He came over to the table and gently shook the grogginess out of me, I smiled a bit.
“Morning doc.” I said, mixed with a large yawn.
“It’s about damn time you woke up too. Mason said you had something groundbreaking to share with me and I’ve been on the edge of my seat for the past 2 hours just waiting for you to wake up.”
“First one little question doc, how did I get here?” I asked rubbing my eyes.
“Funny story really” he started “you passed out on the way back. But funny enough, so did the captain. Apparently you had been so hyper about your discovery, you literally forgot to breathe and passed out (thankfully no brain damage) and you caused Mason to go into such a big laughing fit he passed out as well, he checked out just under an hour ago though. The troopers were laughing pretty hard when they had to toss the both of you in here.” I couldn’t help but laughing, that’ll teach him.
I noticed my suit had been removed, leaving me in my black Trooper fatigues. They were an oddly simple design despite what they were designed for. They were just some baggy pants with a few pin holes for skin monitors and bio-uplinks. The get up was completed with a black collared jacket with some name patches, the sleeves were rolled up so my biceps fit more snuggly into the sleeves of the suit. They must have sent me through the disassembler while I was asleep. How in the world did that not wake me?
I looked up at Doctor Hale, the person I most respect in the whole known universe. Well, next to my parents of course. Doctor Hale had been my mentor ever since I enrolled in the Mars University, and when he quit his role as a professor there he was hired into the Troop corps as a civilian researcher. He was the head of his field and held the chair seat for the research branch of the Space Troops Military Corps.
He found me a research and development position under him just after I graduated. He has taught me everything he knows. He showed me more than engineering. He’s also taught me Marsimbo. A Martian martial art developed to take advantage of different gravities and use them against an opponent. It teaches you to how to be immovable in a low gravity environment or light as a feather in high gravity, or vice versa to double the effects of the latter. He also provided wisdom and insight that only a wise old man could. He has been a major guiding role in my life and his teachings and philosophies affect everything I do. He is tall, as tall as me, with snow white hair, and a full head at that. He has a stoic wrinkled face showing strange combination laughter and concentration. His most remarkable feature is that he is the oldest human ever to live. He is 326 years old, a mind blowing feat that he pulled off on his own. Even modern technology has only extended life to 158 years maximum. He built himself an exoskeleton oddly similar to the design of the environmental expedition suits the troops wear. It acts as a semi-stasis life support system. A genius design, so genius that if he is to die the military will purchase his body for 2 billion credits, enough to purchase a moon near Jupiter. He almost appears to still be in his prime. However the suit is at its end, the joints creaky; paint chipped, metal rusting, exposed wires everywhere, and jimmy rigged off hand parts held on by duct tape. He can’t repair it, he fears if he takes it off he will die, and I wouldn’t want him to attempt it either.
I looked up at him collecting my thoughts, and concentrating very hard on not looking like a love struck school boy. I began my explanation of the ruins, starting with the dome structure. I explained the trees act as solar panels and that the roots and vines are like wires, connecting the whole city to a single point. I also explained that the theories on the wipe out will have to change if I’m correct.
The doctor look taken back, startled almost, I expected him to be surprised but not frightened. My fears were put to rest when he quickly broke into a grin and picked me up off the bed by my shoulders.
“This is great my boy!” He exclaimed, “This is exactly what you need to get yourself recognized in the scientific world”
“Thanks doc, but you’re crushing my shoulders!” I wheezed as he sat me down.
Aegis flittered out of the suit in a ball of light “Sir, you really mustn’t get so excited, you might have a heart attack.” Aegis is the A.I. in the suit, and the ball of light is its avatar when it decides to make its presence know.
“Oh quiet aegis, at least I would die happy.” He looked back at me “The guys are having a drink at the bar. You should join them and celebrate.”
“Sure thing doc.” I waved behind me as I left the medical bay.
“Well here we are aegis. It seems its finally beginning.” Said Doctor Hale to the yellow ball of light known as aegis as he flopped down into his desk chair. He flicked off the brighter lights off leaving the room dark except for the desk lamp and the A.I.’s yellow pulsing glow. His eyes were slightly down cast, a look of worry written on his face. He tried to rub the years of exhaustion from his eyes, but he found he couldn’t, just like the other times. He stared at his gloved hands.
“Indeed master, it has been fun hasn’t it?”
“I enjoyed myself.”
“Do you think we prepared him enough?”
“Of course we did master, I believe 5 years is long enough”
The doctor nodded solemnly as he went back to his papers.
Chapter 4: Love for Discovery
I had been suited up in my red flight suit for an hour now; I couldn’t leave though without calibrating a few mechanisms in the engine room. It was a habit of mine, to check the ship from top to bottom before departure. My success would depend on the ship; it had to be at its top condition. It also helped me clear my head before a difficult mission. This one wouldn’t be difficult, but it’s a tradition not easily broken. I loved doing this working with the ship, and I enjoyed Mac’s quiet presence. Not a man of many words, but if he ever had anything to say you best listen because it’s going to be a whopper.
I told Mac I was going to go suit up in my