To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time
Viewed from an adequate distance, the planet looked green. At a closer look, it glistened in tones alternating between lime-green and a delicate azure. It looked iridescent and pleasing, but like many a first impression, this one too, held only as long as the observer kept his distance.
At a closer distance the dazzling mix of colors divulged its true nature -- a special sort of particularly fine sand, gleaming in the light of an aging sun. The planet's surface was covered with it, and the occasional violent storms carried it from one place to the next, changing the color pattern every so often. The traces of whatever civilizations had inhabited it in the past were long gone, brushed away by the perpetual circulation of the sand. No traces of life had remained, no ruins. Only dune after dune of minuscule green crystals.
Viewed up close, this planet was not a pleasant place, so anyone would have been astounded at the sight of masses of Crown troopers in bulky protection suits digging their way through layer after layer of hot, dry sand. The highly developed AI of the League deep space probe currently hovering over one of the magnetic poles of the planet in order to escape detection was intelligent enough to be intrigued -- in a machine-like sort of way. Judging the importance of the information correctly, it also had started sending a continuous stream of data directly to the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs on Earth a few hours ago, keeping the transmission weak enough to merge into the background radiation.
The furiously working troopers on the planet did not notice the fact that they were under observation. None of them even wasted a thought on the possibility, since their attention was focused on the all-encompassing heat that was all but melting their suits. And even through a darkened visor the green sand sparkled blindingly, making it hard to discern whatever progress was being made in the excavation work.
Oh yes, the sand. It seemed to have a life of its own, clinging viciously to every skin patch it managed to reach, drying out nose and throat from the inside until every breath set the lungs aflame and the muscles burned from lack of oxygen. And many troopers had soon found out that the hermetic suits weren't as airtight as they were cracked up to be, and after a few hours slowly succumbed to the merciful loss of consciousness, never to awake again.
Undetected by the probe's sensors, which were being impeded by the magnetic field it used to protect itself, deadly radiation continued to eat away at the digging troopers, sneaking silently through the small protection their suits offered.
Killing them one by one.
Walsh looked up as the lock on his office door beeped once then disengaged, revealing a group of sweaty rangers in training attire. He smiled in recognition as they drew closer, thankful that no smell seemed to trail in their wake.
"Ah, there you are! I've got a new assignment for you. Nothing special, but strange enough to take a look. Here --" He pushed a data pad towards Captain Fox, who stood closest to the desk. The other three peered over his shoulders, straining to take a look. More accurately, Gooseman looked over Zach's shoulder; Doc and Niko peered around them.
"Interesting," Zach mumbled. "Crown activity in the middle of nowhere, and a destroyer at that. Any data on what they are doing down there?"
"None. That's why we want you and your team down there as soon as possible."
"All four of us?" Gooseman mumbled incredulously, in his usual irreverent way. His tone indicated that he regarded the order as an insult to their qualifications. One S5 Ranger was usually more than enough to sort out a medium scale riot -- two could accomplish exponentially much more. But four? For a standard surveillance mission?
"Yes. Things have been quiet during the last months -- there are no more pressing assignments. Besides, we don't know what awaits you there, so it's better to take every precaution."
Zach nodded in acknowledgment. "Understood. When do we leave?"
"0600 tomorrow, hangar ten. Ranger One is just coming out of a major overhaul, so it's as good as new." He frowned at Goose, whose smile was a little too feral for his taste. "Keep it that way."
With that Walsh turned back to Zach, who looked expectantly at him. "That was all. You're dismissed."
Outside the office Goose rubbed his bare arms, smile widening in a dazzling display of white incisors.
"Major overhaul, eh?" he murmured. "Think of all the possibilities..."
Zach turned to him, brow raised. "Don't," he warned.
Goose's answering look was nothing if not innocent. "What?"
"Think about the possibilities. We all know what happens when you do."
The hyperspace view had nothing new to offer to four seasoned astronauts, especially after a week of flight. Clothed comfortably in training attire, they chose to stare alternately at the controls and at each other instead, while sipping coffee and discussing the mission.
"I didn't know that we had any probes so far in deep space," Doc remarked. Goose threw him a pitying look.
Niko smiled mysteriously. "Human nature, Doc. And I'm not only talking about the curiosity."
"She's talking about the greed. Among other things."
"Must you be so cynical, my Goose man?"
"You could say it's my upbringing. Besides, you never sounded too naive to me."
Doc saluted Goose with the steaming cup. "True. But I can pretend to be, while your attempts in that direction are doomed from the beginning."
"Right. So why try?"
Niko grinned. Zach, who was pondering over mission parameters and listening to the banter with half an ear, allowed himself a smirk.
"Indeed." He waved with his pad for emphasis. "Did you notice that the parameters from the probe seemed a bit too well aligned in some areas? Like they were being altered on the way?"
Doc shook his head. "I ran them through, and everything was all right. The planet may not be the nicest, but the atmosphere is breathable and the temperature, while hot, is bearable. If the Crown had detected the probe, it would have been destroyed. Why tamper with the data if you can erase it altogether?"
Niko took a sip from her coffee -- or, as Goose put it, milk; the amount of coffee in the cup was so small as to be negligible. In his opinion at least. "If the data was incomplete, we'll notice when we arrive. I wouldn't go down without running another series of tests anyway."
She turned to Goose, who was eyeing the contents of her cup disdainfully, and almost dropped it. The heavy battle knife in his hand reflected the colored lights of the humming console behind him as he lay sprawled on the chair with lazy grace, running strong fingers lightly along the jagged edge of the blade... She blinked.
"You will get the opportunity soon enough," G.V. put in happily, startling her. Her gaze, once again fixed on Goose, revealed him calmly cradling a king-size mug of black coffee. "Fifty minutes until arrival."
Downing the remaining contents of his mug in one gulp, Goose rose and stretched mightily. "You don't say," he drawled at G.V. "I'm off to shine my blasters then. See ya in half an hour."
Bored, Doc turned to his console. "Any additional data, G.V.?"
"If you're referring to gossip from the Interceptor's AI, then yes. She's worse than you, by the way."
"I beg your pardon?!"
"The advantage of having an on-board landing craft -- I'm not alone, and I don't have to put up with ALMA -- at least not for this trip. And Sugar is a delightful gossip."
"You disembodied piece of equipment have no idea what 'delightful' is," Doc muttered. "Anyway, I meant the planet -- any additional readings?"
G.V. seemed to ponder. "No, the same readings as the probe."
"Let me see."
Niko struggled to regain some semblance of composure as she followed a bored Zach over to the console to watch the stream of data trailing across the screen. She tried to dismiss the short, vivid image of Goose with the knife, the lazy menace in his eyes as his fingers trailed lovingly across the sharp metal edge. She definitely didn't need a dysfunctional implant that caused hallucinations right now.
Doc, who had been sprawled negligently in his chair, suddenly sat up, oblivious to her inner turmoil.
"Wait a moment..." His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Freeze!" he demanded. "Compare to probe sensor data, equal time frame."
The respective data streams scrolled across the screen, coming to a halt beneath the upper line. Both lines blinked red.
"See? Those four variables are exactly the same."
Zach rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "But that's impossible! The readings can't be exactly the same -- we're talking about atmosphere composition here -- the variables should change every second, let alone every week!"
"Right -- but it's only a few particles, not all. Someone's doctoring the sensor data, and it's not the Crown."
"But the planet's uninhabited," Zach protested. "It has been so for two thousand years."
Niko's eyes widened as scraps of memories from her archaeological courses surfaced. She was more than happy for the diversion. "Maybe," she admitted, "but it was populated at some point before that -- by a space-faring species even. I remember hearing rumors about a vast interstellar empire, but since it was extinguished thousands of years ago, almost no traces remained. Maybe the device interfering with the scans dates from that time."
"I'm afraid that's rather unlikely, but it's the best explanation we have at the moment. Since we don't know what's jamming the scans, try extrapolating from the data that hasn't been doctored. Find out what could be hidden by manipulating those particular variables. Niko, you help Doc."
"Done. Let's see..."
Five minutes later, Doc was frowning fiercely at the notes on his pad. "You won't like this one bit," he finally announced to the cabin at large, including Goose who had returned clothed in full uniform.
"What is it we're not going to like?" Goose inquired.
"Enough radiation to kill a human at thousand miles," Niko grumbled. "None of us can survive down there."
"I can," Goose stated calmly.
"Not for long if your implant is not adjusted accordingly, my Goose man. I don't advise it."
"Doc's right, Goose," Zach said. "You're not going down if there is another alternative."
"I should hope so," Niko muttered.
G.V. interrupted them with the announcement that closer scans of the planetary surface were now available. Goose found himself staring at a huge crater filled with what looked like black dust.
"What are those? Ants?"
"Troopers, I'm afraid." Doc whistled. "A huge lot of them. The Queen is mighty interested in this little spot. G.V., is a better resolution possible from orbit?"
"I'm afraid not," the AI chirped. "That's it."
"Not enough to get to the bottom of this. Goose, when can you be ready?"
"Zach, you must be kidding! If anything, we have to go back to BETA and adjust his implant properly!" Niko exclaimed.
Goose raised a supercilious brow at her. "Yeah, and be back in two weeks -- just in time to see the tail of that destroyer as it disappears into hyperspace -- if that. No, that's no alternative."
"He's right, Niko. We have to find out what's so important to the Queen. It's the only way."
Niko frowned as blurry pictures appeared before her inner eye in quick succession. She felt hot and sweaty all of a sudden, saw the sun blazing down on her, tasted the sand on her tongue, green and somehow salty... "It's suicide!" she protested.
Goose grinned at her. "Not that. Maybe cocky and arrogant, but that's me."
"Reaching orbit in three minutes," G.V. remarked. "I powered up the Interceptor's systems for Ranger Gooseman. It's ready for takeoff."
Doc handed Goose a data pad. "Here are the radiation levels we extrapolated. The Interceptor's systems shouldn't be influenced. The radiation is enough to kill a human, but you shouldn't have to alter much of your metabolism to counteract them. Your charge should last for about four days." He paused, looking for words. "You might have to adjust a little after you've landed -- the data is by no means accurate."
"Understood. Thanks, Doc."
Zach looked him directly in the eyes, the responsibility he shouldered obvious in his gaze. "Good luck, Gooseman."
"Thanks, Captain. See you in four days." Walking towards the door, Goose halted once again as he heard Niko rush after him.
"Shane... I don't want you to burn down there. I saw..." She trailed off, recalling the way her implant had misbehaved earlier. She didn't want to burden him with her fears when he had to concentrate on his mission. She wondered what had happened to her control, her meditative calm.
Turning to face her, Goose brushed his knuckles against her cheek. He had never seen her like that, so openly worried, desperate almost. For him. It was endearing and unusual for her, so he smiled sweetly -- a huge effort, that. He was not sweet.
"Don't worry. Looks like mine are not easily damaged." He grinned as she, predictably, frowned at him. "Really, Niko, I can take care of myself. I'll be all right. Promise."
She straightened her shoulders and gave him a halfhearted smile. "I hope you're right. Good luck."
She stared at his back as he left the cabin, but she didn't look at the Interceptor as it launched from Ranger One's small hangar. She refused to acknowledge her feelings of dread as the premonitions they were.
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part II
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part III
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part IV
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part V
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part VI
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part VII
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part VIII
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part IX
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part X
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part XI
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part XII
- To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time - Part XIII