-Aboard the ESS Homebound K-196. SRC 231211.
-One minute after entering the anomaly.
Another fun fact, it's been proven that while I am not the luckiest man in the galaxy, I am in the top ten. Sadly, nobody ever pays attention to that list.
The world reshaped itself, and I was being yelled at. Normally I was only yelled at on the battlefield, by superiors, but now it was my own crew. Funny how that works. Most of the lights had darkened, and the incessant flickering of various controls and diodes assaulted my already weakened eyes, and the violent alarm didn't help any either. It didn't smell like soap anymore; it smelled like smoke. I hated smoke even more than soap. Heh. Rhymes.
"SIR OUR COMMUNICATIONS JUST WENT DOW-"
"WEAPONS OFFLINE. I'M ATTEMPTING TO BRING THEM BAC-"
"HALF THE SHIP JUST DIED! I'M TRYING TO SAVE LIFE SUPPOR-"
I sighed, and let go of the two joysticks. The shouting continued around me, and I rubbed my hands together, feeling the sticky sweat that had accumulated in the last few seconds. I licked my lips, they were dry like they’d never seem moisture in their lifetimes, and stared at the window at the front. There were stars again, but nothing else seemed to be wrong, except for an abnormally bright star in the distance. We were near a system, then.
"TACT?" I asked, waving at the air where the hologram controls were supposed to be. There was no answer, and I sighed. The hull shuddered, and I grabbed hold of the control sticks again. The ship lurched, and one of the cadets who hadn't secured himself was flung into his control panel. I grappled with the controls, eyes set on the spinning stars in front of me. In the background, the screaming began dying down. The sense of paranoia, nausea, and the feeling that my perception of reality had been smacked around in some brutal ancient sport had finally faded.
"COMMUNICATIONS STILL OFFLINE!"
"Sir! Life support is back online!"
"Good news, weapons are back."
"I got the engines under control!"
"Our scanners are 'ah bit wonky still, sir."
"Sir, no casualties. One minor injury, just a scratch. Nothing irreparable, but our communications are still down," Art said, spinning in his chair to face me. I nodded at him, eyes still focused on the space ahead. Gradually, the shuddering stopped, and the lights began flickering back on. A dull, male voice emanated from the ceiling.
"TACT Re-Initializing. Backups Checked And Uploading."
I let go of the controls, and rubbed my hands together again. After the sweat dried from the friction, I pressed a button on the side of the chair. The alarm stopped, and the holographic controls flickered back into place. In the corner of the holoscreen was a red-highlighted list of things currently inoperable. Slowly, one by one, they faded to light blue. One refused to change, though, and I tapped it.
"Confirmation on the status of our communications?"
"Confirmed. They Are Down, Sir," TACT said, "And I Can Not Restart Them Without Using A Vast Majority Of Our Energy."
"Don't restart them," I said, and clicked out of the screen. A few more taps spurred by muscle memory and a navigation panel popped up. There was one dot in the middle, us, and everything else was coated in a thick sheet of horrible blackness. Normally it would shift to compensate distance and show at least the nearest system. This was abnormal. I touched TACT's button again. "Perform a scan on all nearby celestial objects. I want this map ASAP- Good," I said, as a couple blips appears on the map. More blips, a few unnamed planets and their satellites, and then the nearby star. "Run a scan on each of the planets, get their orbits down. Details and the like."
A group of ripples spread from our point on the ship, and various statistics popped up next to each asteroid, planet, or moon each ripple touched. I straightened in my seat and cleared my voice.
"Intercom on," I said, and swallowed hard. "Attention, crew. I have some good news and bad news. Good news is we weren't obliterated, no one died, we have full control of the ship, and there's a system close to us that wasn't previously thought to exist in our databases. Bad news is our communications are down, so we're stranded from here on out. According to command regulations, we're nonexistent. Dead. That means all our problems are our own, so I don't want any problems we can't fix, got it? Good. Now I want everyone to sit ti- Oh... My God."
All the crewmembers in the room stared at me, and I tapped on a planet as a roll of statistics appeared. Art raised an eyebrow, and I waved him over. "TACT, are you sure you scanned that thing correctly?"
"Run a starmap comparison, I want to double check. Art?" I looked up at the lieutenant, who stood next to the chair with his hands behind his back, peering over my shoulder at the planet in question.
"Is that even possible?" I heard him whisper. "An exact copy of-" TACT butted in, and our mouths slowly fell open.
"Sir. Comparison To Our Archives Is Complete. Our Current Position Is In The Sol System, Probability Of This Being Correct, Ninety-Seven Point Nine Percent."
“Oh my God," I repeated, and double tapped on the planet. "We're going there. Now. I want full scans on the way there. Radiation, life scans, wha- Oh bollocks. Sorry, boys. Intercom off," I said, and turned to face Art, who was staring blankly at the picture. I snapped my fingers, and he looked back at me, worry etched into his face. I could vaguely feel the rest of the crew staring at us. The hum of the engine was the only sound other than their slow, tense breathing. If the ship had a heart, it would have stopped.
"What do you think we'll find, Jackson?" he whispered. I grinned.
"No idea. If this place is really Sol, and it has Earth, we’re going to be the most famous men in history. Ever. Hopefully, there’s still life down there, and hopefully they’re sapient at the very least. Even better if they’re friendly. I love first contact missions," I quipped, double tapping on the screen again. The statistics refreshed. "Oh, look. They have have civilization down there. Sapient!"
"Sir, with all due respect, I'm well aware of what happened on your last first contact mission. If I remember correctly, you were run off the planet and we had to-"
"We have that 'first contact kit' command gave us, too. We'll be fine. I call dibs on being first to step on the ground."
"And go to the hangar and set up the dropship. Make sure you bring out the EPA suits. Just in case we do get shot at, of course. I want to leave at least two people in the ship at all times." I looked over to one of the cadets, searching for his name in my mind before waving at him.
"Congrats. You're flying this baby while we're planetside. What's your name?"
"Evo Andres, am cadet and proud to serve, sir."
"Yea, yea. You were trained in piloting, right?"
"Yessir, was my specialty during trainings." I chuckled, nodded, and pushed myself out of the chair, stepping to the side. He stared at me for a few moments, and I pointed a thumb at the seat. "All yours, mate." I turned to face Art. "Me and you are going to be the first on the ground, alright? I'll bring two more with us."
"Nah, I’m not bringing a VALK for myself; don't plan on getting shot at. We'll be going in with only minor side arms. Dropship’s armed, you know.”
"I know, I checked as soon as we got on the ship."
"Allllright!" I looked back at Evo, who was now squirming uncomfortably in the chair. Ignoring the urge to chuckle at his position, I clapped him on the shoulder. "You'll do fine."
The dropship rattled for the umpteenth time, and I could see one of the cadets clutch his chair instinctively. The thick plastic bag tied to the wall was already filled with what was once his lunch, and I could see the strain on his face as we closed the distance between the Homebound and the planet. I had the same reaction the first few times I had traveled at such speeds in a dropship, and our technologies then certainly weren't what they are now. He was lucky, really.
I tapped the side of my helmet, and the visor lifted. Relief flooded into his face, happy to be reminded I was there and still human. I smiled and nodded in understanding, noticing he was impatiently tapping his armored boot on the ground. A few seats next to him sat the other cadet, staring blankly out the window from under his helmet, the visor obscuring his face.
"Nervous?" I asked, still smiling slyly, leaning forward ever so slightly in my seat like most bureaucrats tend to do when they want to look interested or concerned. He feigned a laugh, and shook his head.
"No sir. Of course not."
"Well," I said, my friendly gaze turning into a frown, “you should be. First contact missions are some of the most fun, but first impressions are always good to get done proper. Depending on what TACT finds with the dropship scanners, appearing to be cold and callous may not be the best move. You need to learn to improvise. Act. First off, what's your name?"
I straightened my posture out, and pointed a gloved finger at the second cadet. "You. Name," I barked, and he jumped in his seat before turning to me. I couldn't see his face from behind the visor, which annoyed me. If he liked it down he could keep it, but I like faces. Faces are nice.
"That's Dylan. Don't expect an answer," Roland said, coming to his peer’s rescue. Dylan nodded, and I nodded back. I hadn't checked to see if any of the crew was specifically mute, but I didn't know how I had missed it earlier.
"When we get down there, I want both of you to turn your speakers off until I order you to turn them back on. That way we can talk privately. Make sure to do whatever I say, because I've been on more first contact missions than either of you. Speaking of which." I looked away from them for a moment, and pressed a button on the side of my suit. A holographic panel appeared, and I tapped through one of the buttons. A low buzzing began in my helmet, and I coughed.
"Art. Can you patch TACT through to the intercom? I'd like the cadets to know what we're heading into." I paused, listening to the shuffling of limbs as Art turned around in the cockpit. Next to the thin door leading to the front of the dropship, a panel slid down to reveal a screen. The mushroom-like TACT logo appeared, and it's dull voice resonated through the area.
"Captain Amber. I Would Like To Report That I Have Finished Scanning The Designated Target. I Feel You Will Be Interested In The Results."
I waved dismissively at the screen. "You're an AI, you don't feel anything. Just tell me the results, no order needed. I just want to know what we're going into." I stopped, and glanced at the two other occupants. They were staring at the screen with intent expressions, or at least one of them was. The other still hadn't moved his visor.
"It Would Be Best If I Sent Them To Your Suit. Running An AI For Extended Periods Of Time Will Deplete Ship Energy."
"Whatever. Just sen- Ah." I paused as a hologram extended outwards on my wrist, emitting from my datapad. A long list of information flowed past. I tapped it once, and it reverted to the beginning. "Shut down for now, TACT," I said, and the panel slid back into place with a low whirr. I flicked through the information, skimming.
I'm not sure what my face showed while I read through it, but every once in a while I looked through the translucent letters to see Roland's face slowly turn from anticipation to utter dread. As for the other cadet, he still had that visor down. He had already been waiting in the dropship when I arrived, if it was even a he.
Eventually, I just turned off the hologram, and looked at the two cadets sitting opposite from me. It was a fair sized dropship cabin, at least as far as dropships went. I coughed nervously, steadying my voice.
"This system is geocentric,” I said, my dull voice practically echoing off the metal walls. Roland's mouth hung open, his thin mustache stretching. "That's not all, though," I sighed, and slumped in the chair. "They're sapient. They have cities, we knew all that, but they have no recognizable defenses, and judging from their greatly differing architectures and heat sig's, there are several sapient species on the planet. Which one is the dominant one, TACT couldn't figure out, but he looked at the one with the most population. From patterns throughout other first-contact missions and our own histories, it appears we've located their capitol. Big, white castle thingy, apparently. TACT has the scans of it. Weather is mostly clear throughout the planet, but that may be just due to our timing. Most of the species don't appear to have advanced technology. No radiation. Survivable atmosphere. Perfect conditions for a mission." I paused, looking from Roland to Dylan. "Which naturally means something is probably going to go wrong. Set your weapons to nonlethal."
"Aye, sir," Roland said, hand reaching down to fiddle with the bulky weapon attached to his leg. I looked over at Dylan, who shrugged. I supposed that meant he already had it set. Good.
"Art?" I asked, tapping the side of my helmet once again. "You picked out a good, populated area yet? We need to keep this mission speedy so we have enough energy to exit the anomaly without killing ourselves."
"How about what TACT labeled as the most probable location of their capitol? Because it's either the capitol or some sort of sacred temple. Fifty fifty chance it's a temple and they decide to run us off the planet for insulting their freaking sun god. There's a small inhabited area a few kilometers away from that, but I'd rather deal with politicians or monks than the inhabitants of a small village. Remember last time, sir?"
I narrowed my eyes, and chewed on my lower lip for a moment. On one hand, we had a shot at instantly getting to meet their leaders or trespassing on sacred ground, but it sped up the first contact process by a few weeks. None of the flying around and observing garbage that usually went down. On the other hand, we could easily botch our chances at a friendly relationship with the first choice, and then maybe they decide we're an inferior race and attempt to wipe our existence from the galaxy. That had actually happened once. We didn't have enough energy or fuel to last the weeks required for a normal first contact, and even if we secured friendly contact there was the chance they didn't have the technology to help. We'd be stranded.
"To the capitol, Art. Take us in when you're ready, just be sure to warn us about it." I chuckled dryly, recalling the last time Art had brought us into atmosphere. None of the dropship occupants had been prepared. Suffice to say, the mission, which was to sneak into a heavily guarded prison facility to get back an ambassador, went smoother than the ride into atmosphere.
"Aye aye, Jackson," Art said, and I could feel the hum of the engines increase. through the walls. "Entry's in two minutes at this speed, and I'm accelerating. Buckle up."
"What's the time at our landing zone, Art?" I called, mind wandering as I double checked the several straps connected to each side of the seat. I had made it a habit to always strap myself in during flights. It made things easier during sudden encounters with the enemy. By easier, I mean I didn't break my skull open if we had to engage in sudden and violent evasive maneuvers. That happened during an atmospheric entry once. I stopped getting the nightmares a few years ago. Specifically the nightmares about that one, not nightmares in general.
"About mid-day, I think. We haven't had enough time to check how fast their days go by, but it's definitely somewhere near there."
"What if they're nocturnal?"
"We'll cross that bridge when or if we get there, I s’pose. Entry in forty seconds. I'm turning off the intercom until then. Art out."
I chuckled, and looked at Roland and Dylan. "You boys ready? Not every new recruit gets sent on a suicide mission and a first contact event all in one. You're lucky."
Roland nodded, patting at the chair's belts wrapped around his chest and legs. "I guess I am. Training was either rough or just dull. We did more obstacle courses than we practiced with weaponry or piloting, or even officer training. Dylan and I were actually in the WIC Indigo incident, though. You were there for that, right?"
"I was. I don't remember you two, though. Were you on the front lines?" I asked.
"About at the midway. We just kept the buggers at a choke point, west side of the facility. Lighter traffic over there, but it was still a challenge. You were on the east side?"
"Northeast, actually," I said, doing my best to recall the memory."Lots of heavy stuff went on over there. You saw the explosions during the climax of the battle, right, the ones just before we won?"
"Yea," he said, and I could tell by his face he remembered it clearly. "Never was told what those were about."
"That was me," I said, chuckling. "Considering the facility had like, no proper explosives, I think I did a good job. Did you enjoy the show?" I chuckled again, fading off as I noticed his grim expression.
"One of my buddies got hit by the debris. Banged him up pretty badly and he had to drop out of the cadet program. Haven't heard from him since then,” he said, and Dylan nodded. My smile fell, and I glanced awkwardly at the floor. Seconds afterward, the craft began to shudder, and panels slid over the windows.
"Entry time, entry time," I muttered in a faked sing-song voice, still staring at the floor. It was part of a diddy we used to sing, back when “entry time” was synonymous with getting blown up. I lazily reached up and drew my visor down, the black cover locking itself into place with the rest of the helmet. Normally, I never wore the same helmet as a cadet - or anyone else for that matter. If I did wear a helmet, it was of my own design and specified just for me. I had the engineers build me several of them, which I hid in various ships and bases for when I visited, so I didn't have to carry one around all the time. One was located in my personal quarters on the Homebound, but I hadn't bothered to put it on. Sometimes it helped to be a little humble. Roland mimicked my action, and gripped the armrests like they were the only thing keeping him afloat.
I could hear flames licking, or rather, roaring, alongside the craft. I had seen every kind of ship enter the atmosphere, whether it be crashing or landing, so I knew what we looked like. The question was, of course, what did we look like to the inhabitants of the world? I couldn't really help but wonder. Cheesy, but true. When you’re as busy as me, there eventually aren’t anymore new things to look at. Even the most wondrous of sights becomes mundane.
I hated that.
The shuddering and groaning stopped as quickly as it had ended. I could always appreciate a smooth entry, or even a smooth crash. Having crashed multiple ships in my time, I could empathize with how hard it could be. Gravity returned to normal, and everyone simultaneously banged against the back of their seats as the dropship leveled out. The familiar buzz of the intercom returned.
"Alright. We're going steady towards... Damn. Jackson Amber, you are going to want to see this. Patching it to your visor feed... Wow," Art said, and an image flickered on the inside of my visor. Normally, dropships or ships in general didn't have a camera system, but this one was specifically designed for this mission. We needed to know everything, and expect twice as much beforehand.
No one could have expected this.