By: Nick Wisseman
Mika sprinted down the Mantis’s narrow passageway, barely restraining herself from hurdling over Neto as he stumbled out of his quarters. But the ship’s gravity generator had spun back up to full strength—significantly reducing her chances of clearing the tall biologist—so she steadied him instead, then squeezed by.
“Why did Desmond end the brownout early?” she panted.
He yawned. “What?” The next section of overhead lights flickered on in a new, dimmer pattern that suggested another motion sensor had failed. “What time is it?”
“Too early for a full power cycle!” Desmond was a stickler about fuel use—and for good reason. They’d had to submit not one but two extraordinary-resource-allocation requests to get this mission approved. And even then, Fleet had granted the bare minimum. The tiny surplus that included was for emergencies only.
So for Desmond to prematurely end a regularly scheduled brownout, one of two things must have happened. Either a KI patrol had found them, and the Mantis was about to tap that surplus so they could run for their lives …
Or they’d finally reached Virendell.
Mika skidded into the cockpit as Desmond reached up to flick on the comm, presumably to clarify the situation for the rest of the crew. But Mika could already see what lay ahead of them.
A beautiful, vibrant planet marbled with textured greens, deep blues, and swirls of cloudy white.
“It looks like yesterEarth,” she breathed.
Desmond flashed one of his rare smiles—the kind that softened his expression from craggy aloofness to rugged warmth. “Were you expecting that?”
“No. I mean, not like this.” Not the pristine version pictured in her textbooks. YesterEarth at the end, maybe; everything in the literature indicated Virendell had become a wasteland. “Are you sure we’re …”
“The coordinates are right.” Desmond paused, perhaps to let her drink in the sight a little longer. Then he turned on the comm. “For those of you who didn’t just careen through the ship in their pajamas—”
Mika glanced down at her ratty castoffs and shrugged. At least she was wearing pants.
“—we’ve arrived at our destination ahead of schedule.” Desmond hesitated again, this time looking more rueful than respectful. “And yes, it’s probably because of Atalia’s Papsukkalian Wormhole maneuver. An irregular, unauthorized maneuver. But an effective one.”
Atalia strode into the cockpit and gave herself a round of applause. “You’re damn right it was because of my shortcut. Made up for your slow ass.”
“Some of us only fly as fast as conditions allow. And given our ongoing issues with the ecological cycler—”
Atalia rolled her eyes and jerked a meaty thumb at Desmond. “Hop up, captain. You’re done babysitting my ship.”
He slid over to the co-pilot’s seat while Atalia took the Mantis’s helm.
Neto, still yawning, entered and assumed his usual position beside Atalia. He propped his elbow on the back of her armrest—out of the way, but there if she wanted to squeeze his hand, as she always seemed to before attempting something reckless (but often brilliant) like her Papsukkalian stunt.
The gesture never failed to remind Mika of how she’d felt about Desmond—once upon a time. But that was ancient history. The history that still mattered was shimmering in front of the ship.
“Scanners pick up anything yet?” she asked.
Desmond shook his head. “Just the initial pings … Wait, it looks like we’re starting to get the physiography. Kady, you want to interpret?”
“Gladly.” The slender geologist had just nudged into the cockpit. Rocket followed at a trot, tail wagging at a speed that implied the mutt was pleased all his humans were herded in one spot. As always, the dog’s prosthetic back legs clinked with each step.
“Let’s see,” Kady said. “I’m reading roughly fifty-five percent water coverage—actual water. I wonder how much of that is natural … A stable crust composed of everything from silicon to rhodium … No traces of mithrol, but I couldn’t get the sensors to pick up our sample with any reliability, so that doesn’t mean much … Atmosphere looks good aside from some nasty volcanic vents—we might not need respirators … And the gravity seems comfortable. I can see why lost colonists would settle here.”
“What about organics?” asked Neto.
“Heat signatures project a layer of vegetation that’s as lush as it looks. You’re probably going to have a field day cataloging flora.”
Neto grinned and bent to scratch under Rocket’s chin. “You ready to get a new plant named after you, boy?”
Mika cleared her throat. “And infrastructure?”
Atalia switched to a different overlay. “Looks like two clusters. A smaller one on the near side—maybe an industrial zone? But unfinished; lots of busted scaffolding—and what might be a city on the far side. Nothing active. Not enough to register, anyway. And before you ask, Desmond, there’s no sign of KI hardware or Strangler pods.”
“Yet.” He pulled up navigation and started plotting a route. “We’ll have to get closer to confirm. What’s our charge at?”
“The second unit of solar panels is still slacking, but the brownout got the ship back to sixty-two percent. Field equipment is at thirty-seven—enough for a recon.”
“That’s marginal but good enough. Why doesn’t everybody else suit up and—”
Mika cleared her throat again. “Can we go to the city first?”
Desmond frowned. “We’re here for the mithrol. If they were mining or synthesizing it somewhere, it was probably in the industrial zone.”
Atalia reached back and squeezed Neto’s hand. “We’re here because of Mika. Her research is why we know there might be mithrol down there. And you were just celebrating all that fuel I saved. Treat the rookie to an extra burn.”
Mika could have kissed the pilot.
Desmond was less enthusiastic. “We’re closer to KI space than the Restoration’s; I’d rather save our buffer for contingencies. Even if that weren’t the case, our return route involves a slingshot maneuver that’s meant to begin on the far side. It’s much more efficient to check out the industrial zone first and then scout the city.” He turned to Mika. “And we will scout the city.”
She took a deep breath she tried to disguise as an ordinary inhalation. She’d known Desmond for what—twenty years now? He’d never broken his word to her, even before he went career military, and protocol became his everything. Also, his reasoning was sound, if annoyingly so. In other words, classic Desmond. “It’s all right. You guys are the pros; I’m just an academic. I can be patient.”
He smiled again. That was something, at least. “Go get ready, then.”
On the way to the locker room, Kady rested her hand on Mika’s shoulder. “Desmond’s never stinted on a survey,” the geologist said. “He just likes to lock down the mission goal first. But if we do find mithrol, Fleet will want the cultural and biological preservation data squared away so they can start extraction ASAP. Don’t worry: you’ll still get to do your anthropological thing.”
“I know.” And after all the years she’d spent in grad school—the endless hours wading through degraded datacubes, disentangling historians’ conflicting accounts, interviewing descendants of people who might have known something but rarely did. Writing draft after draft of her dissertation and agonizing over the title she still wasn’t happy with. (Fugitive Folklore: What Quarantine Archives Reveal about Humanity’s Flight from the Milky Way.) After all that, couldn’t she wait a few more days?
Rocket, who’d brought up the rear until they entered the locker room, did his part to console her by licking her hand.
“Thanks, buddy.” Mika gave him a pat, careful not to let her fingers stray onto his prosthetic hindquarters—the transition from fur to flexible metal always felt wrong, as if she were loving on a dog that was half KI. “I still can’t believe Atalia got authorization to bring him.”
Neto laughed from the men’s side of the row of lockers that bisected the room. “Well, he doesn’t eat much, the skinny thing. And the kinetic energy he generates by being a nutball offsets most of what his legs pull from the ship. On balance, he draws about the same charge as a rifle or a suit. Speaking of: Rocket, battery.”
Obedient as ever, the dog trotted to his charging pad.
Kady snorted. “It’s also possible we didn’t get that particular authorization.”
Mika raised an eyebrow. “Desmond was cool with that?”
“Atalia didn’t leave him much choice. ‘The dog stays or I go’ was all she needed to say.”
And that had been enough? Maybe Mr. Stickler had loosened up. “I’m excited to see Rocket’s sensors in action.”
“Oh, you’ll enjoy not having to carry your scopes. The tech Atalia built into his legs is as sensitive as any Fleet-issue clunkers you could lug into the field.”
Kady hummed while they changed into their tactical suits. The tune sounded like something from that old musical she kept blaring in her room. What had she called it … Hamilton?
“Are you ever going to sing something from this century?” asked Neto.
“Sure, as soon as this century comes out with something half-decent.” She motioned for Mika to rotate for a suit-seal check. “I’m hoping we won’t need all this once we validate the environmental readings on the ground. But you know, rules.”
“I don’t mind playing it safe. The Phoenix 10—that’s the Virendell transport I tracked down.”
“The one with the mithrol sample?”
“Right. It was locked away in an old quarantine unit. Its crew died of Strangler.”
“Oh.” Kady gave Mika a thumbs-up and gestured for her to return the favor. “Was that in your dissertation?”
“Sorry. I guess I focused on the parts about mithrol’s potential to end the interstellar energy crisis. Strangler spores don’t last past fifty years, though, right?”
Neto rapped his side of the lockers. “You both decent?”
“Basically. Come get your check.”
He loped around the nearest corner. “So, is that what happened to the colony? They had an outbreak?”
Kady poked him in the chest. “He probably only read the parts a biologist would care about.”
Neto raised his arms as if she had him at gunpoint. “Guilty.”
Mika forced a chuckle. “It’s fine. Professor Gellman said it was the longest doctoral paper he’s overseen … I didn’t find anything conclusive about what happened to Virendell. A Strangler epidemic, a KI invasion, raiders who heard rumors of a power source so potent it makes today’s ion engines look like they’re still running on xenon—they’re all possible until we learn more. But whatever it was, it was bad.”
“You guys still in the locker room?” Atalia said over the comm.
Kady cleared Neto’s seals and turned to the mic on the far wall. “Just finishing up. What’s wrong?”
“You should see this shit.” The neighboring display winked on and started loading a graphic, bar by bar. The first few suggested an enhanced image of the surface. “It’s not busted scaffolding in the industrial zone.”
“What? The connection’s still lagging on this half of the ship. We don’t have a visual yet.”
“Trust me, it’s worth waiting for. Either the largest art installation in the universe or …”
“Or what?” Neto strode to the display, hand pulling back as if to smack it. But when the rest of the image rushed into focus, he froze. “Oh my God.”
“Skeletons,” Atalia finished. “Fucking skyscraper-sized skeletons. All over the place.”
Gently, Mika shifted a slack-jawed Neto so she could see the full picture. Atalia wasn’t exaggerating. Bones filled the screen, dwarfing the factory in the lower left. A few of the immense skeletons were upright, perched on four legs, their ridged spines extending into sinuous tails. None had arms, but several had shoulders that spread into what could only be wings. And the heads …
Kady whistled. “Are those dinosaurs? Like on yesterEarth?”
“Maybe,” Mika murmured, thinking back to the old fantasy epics she’d loved as a kid. “But I would have said dragons.”