Forged in Fire
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“Come on, Dan! You haven’t actually talked to anyone but me for a solid week now, and I’m supposed to be the antisocial one!”
“Knock it off, Yannick. I couldn’t care less about Fraser’s ‘party’. The news is more interesting.”
“Yannick, for the last time. No.”
“I’ll buy you a drink if you go.”
“I don’t particularly want to touch a glass smothered in lubricant fluid.”
“I haven’t been working in the engineering department today.”
“Yannick, just drop it, alright?”
The two of us lapsed into an uncomfortable silence for the next few minutes, gradually making our way to the outskirts of town. The pavements were cracked, weeds growing out of them in some places. Most of them had some sort of stain; a cigarette end or a wad of chewing gum smushed into the stone. The road next to us was worn, the white strip down the centre faded, and a bunch of lamps stretching off into the distance illuminated the floor below them in a faint blue glow. Just beyond where they ended, a small, dilapidated flat stood solemnly in the evening gloom, its walls still strong and the roof still fit to keep out the rain.
Name’s Dan. Short for Daniel, but I prefer to go by the name Dan. Just sounds better. More snappy. Anyway, I’m a recent graduate from our sector’s military training academy here on Chythus Secundus, and Yannick was one of my closest friends throughout the whole thing. He’s blonde, but you wouldn’t be able to tell through the grease spots. About six foot four, kind of gangly, and his face seems just a bit too long. Still, he’s got a great mind and a keen eye for detail. He’d been working on a project for the past couple of months, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was.
Now, he was trying to persuade me to come with him to this guy’s graduation do in the centre at some bar. Genius he may be, he couldn’t seem to get it into his head that he was probably going to end up completey stoned, laid so many times he would probably wake up the next morning with a variety of STDs, and the xxxx beaten out of him, all within the first hour. Now can you see why I’m so eager to go?
A few hundred metres to go and he started talking again.
“It’s a turret module.”
I looked at him oddly. “What?”
“My project. It’s a turret module. For frigates.” he elaborated.
I raised an eyebrow. “Useful, considering the Federation has no long range frigates.”
He was quick to retort. “Jericho Crus Type X. It’s a very new one. Stolen right from under their noses from one of their shipyards. Don’t know much about it, but it’s supposed to be experimental. Designed a module for it to make its torpedo more effective.”
“By turning it into a turret?”
“Basically, yeah. The academy sent it off for approval, but they haven’t gotten back to me.”
“How’d you know it uses a torpedo if it’s experimental?”
We stopped at the front door of the flat. I knew what was inside. Walk in, and there’s a marble counter (that doubles up as a table) on your left with a few basic utensils. At the far end there were two doors, the one on the right leading off into the lounge and the other to a small bedroom just large enough to fit a single bed and a few cupboards. The plaster needed redoing and the walls weren’t the flashiest, being pure white and all, but I was proud to be able to call it home.
“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” Yannick sighed, obviously exasperated with my refusal to join him for the noght.
“Same place as always.” I shook his hand and swept my keycard across the scanner mounted on the wall.
“Sure. Good night then.” And with that, Yannick set off back the way we had come, whistling quietly to himself. I chuckled and pushed the front door aside, stepping into my humble abode and absently flicking the switch as I walked in. As the ceiling lamps flickered into life and lit up the interior, I turned, pulled the door closed, locked it and made for the lounge. A sofa was pushed up against the wall, and a small TV set was sat opposite. On the right, looking out upon the road, you could see the faint lights of the town in the distance, small specks of orange. On the left, a pair of moons were peeking out over the horizon, ready to bask the night in a silvery glow. The Twins of Chythus.
I had a pretty basic TV. Nothing special. Just an old Horizon mark four with faulty voice recognition, but as I hardly ever used it I didn’t care much about replacing it. The package wasn’t spectacular either: a bare minimum that made the lowest dent in my income as possible, with a dozen or so channels. I always ask myself: “Why waste time doing nothing when you can live life to the fullest?”, but that’s just me. Can’t sit still for a moment. Still, it helped to catch up on the current state of affairs, especially since the Precursors showed up. Some people just though it was total BS, but I found it interesting. Yeah, yeah, I sound like the type who couldn’t care less about things like that, but truth be told I have a soft spot for history.
Anyway, I was flicking through my channels quietly, hoping to find something of at least some interest, when I heard the telltale sounds of a meteor breaking up overhead. In fact, it was even louder than usual. I had to stick my fingers in my ears to stop me from going deaf. After a few seconds, it stopped abruptly. If this was a normal impact, I would vaguely consider going out and scavenging whatever I could from it: some of the materials in those things were worth more than gold, and were very highly prized in the Engineering department in the academy. But this wasn’t any impact; as soon as the noises stopped, every single light in the house blew and my TV set shut itself off.
The fuse relay was outside, so I felt my way along the wall and pulled myself into the kitchen. There were no windows in there, so it was pretty much pitch black, but at least I could guess where I was. I’d thrown the keycard down onto the counter as I’d walked in, so the logical thing to do was run my hands over the marble to try and find it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t there. Must’ve fallen down the side, then. Keeping my hand lightly on the tabletop, I took a step forward. And another, and another…
My fingers left the marble. I back-pedalled a bit and managed to get my bearings again. Turn left ninety degrees, three steps forward. Left again. One step. I should have been behind the counter by now, so I knelt down to feel along the skirting boards. Instead, my head met the marble. I swore, rubbing my forehead; I shouldn’t have been so hasty. Just touching the bruise hurt like a xxxxx. Agh, God…
The keycard was lying on the floor a few centimetres away from me, so I grabbed it, and taking great care standing up again, turned around and opened one of the drawers, pulling out a small torch. It was more of a glow-stick, really, but nine volts on xenon LEDs made for a great three sixty lamp. I twisted the bottom rung, and was greeted by a warm red light that spilled across the room. At least I could see now. I turned my attention to the doorway; next up was fixing those relays.
* * *
I have to say, it really was a beautiful night. The twin moons still hung in the sky like lanterns, their light almost bright enough to render my torch useless, but then again I only really used it to get outside. Stretching out behind my flat were a series of fields full of corn, the first few belonging to the guy who sold it to me. Really, nothing much else was beyond that besides a mountain range about one hundred or so kilometres away. I’d only ever been to them once, and that was when the academy organised a skiing trip there. Some awesome slopes on them, though, and to stand at their base and look up at the snow-capped peaks and icy ridges… Amazing.
The hills in the distance - the ones I mentioned before - they lent a bit of an ominous atmosphere to the valley, really. In the day they helped shield us from Chythus’ sun, but at night looked fairly creepy. I don’t know why, but there was always this small indent that was permanently covered in shadows, and looked even darker at night. A lot of rumours went around about people going there and never coming back, but that was a load of crap. Don’t believe in that stuff anyway.
I pried open the cover and looked inside.
“Oh, you have to be kidding me…”
The fuse relay was blown. Completely and utterly gone. Most of them wires had either melted or shorted out, the fuses themselves blackened. Some of them had even burst apart and spilling their metallic guts across the inside of the relay, metaphorically speaking. The insulation had been fried, and that alone would cost a fortune to replace…
Wait just one second.
Meteor impacts did not produce any form of EMP. Unless there was magnetite in it – the chances of which were so damn near 0 it was near impossible – then the blast had to be produced by some form of electronic warfare equipment, like a Metastable Field Generator, or a Diffusion Shield. Those only came on Empire or Jericho ships; the Federation were still making more advanced prototypes which would hold steadier for longer, but that meant the ‘meteor’ must have been an ECM or a Command ship…
Which meant there was a pilot in that thing.
All the thoughts of the relay disappeared from my mind. Empire or Jericho, it would be morally wrong to leave them to die out there. The temperature could drop to minus fifteen degrees Celsius, and unless their ship’s life support was still functioning, they’d definitely freeze to death. Life support surviving that crash? Pff. I’d have a better chance surviving on the moon.
I looked up at the smoke trail. The shape was definitely reminiscent of exhausts, but fusion drives didn’t produce them unless they were damaged. Some of the cowling must have broken off in the upper atmosphere; Chythus’ thermosphere was incredibly dense for its height and most ships needed additional heat deflectors or had to approach in a guided descent. The pilot would most likely have not known about either.
I turned away from the fuses and looked at where the trail came to a stop just above the corn field layers. The ship had crashed about half a mile from here. My best record for an 800 metre run was about 4 minutes.
Start running, you pillock!
Oh, right, yeah.
I vaulted the wooden fence and set off sprinting. I smashed the stalks out of the way, keeping an eye on the smoke to make sure I was going in the right direction. The xenon lamp was still in my hand, casting its glow on the mass of vegetation. The corn field stopped, and I didn’t even have to jump the next fence: the wood was so old it just broke as soon as my leg touched it.
I saw the ship. Katana Type S. Armed with assault railguns, 3 of which had been torn from their mounts and one still hanging off at an odd angle on the right wing. Emergency barrier was still active: I could see the green sphere still crackling and hissing in the low light. The pilot had been a quick thinker: the diffusion shield was still running and still absorbing most of the heat from re-entry, but how the main core how had survived the impact was unknown to me. The barrier may have been able to soak up the majority of the damage, but the force of the crash would have torn most of the internal equipment from its holdings.
It didn’t matter. I closed the distance as quickly as I could, stopping just before I hit the barrier. I knew it was harmless to ships, but we’d never been told if it was dangerous to organisms… I took the chance, reached out and brushed the tips of my fingers along it.
And that was the moment I learned that touching highly-condensed energy shields was not the most pleasant experience I could have.
“AGH MOTHER******* ******* PIECE OF **** ****! **** MY LIFE! AHHHH…”
I stuck my injured hand in between my knees and pressed as hard as I could, biting my lip in a vain attempt to stop myself from cursing any further. I stood like that, muttering, for a solid few minutes, before the part of my brain still hanging onto the gravity of the situation caught my attention.
WILL YOU FOCUS YOU HALF-WIT?! THERE’S A MOST LIKELY UNCONSCIOUS PILOT ABUT 10 METRES FROM WHERE YOU’RE STOOD!
I looked up at the Katana again. The cockpit was still tightly sealed: not even a crowbard would pry it open. Which meant I had to do things digitally. And that required implants. I could use them, of course, but I was still on neuro-suppressants as I had only recently got them. A couple were Jericho and Empire clones, but I did have the SID – the Secure Interfacing Device – which allows pilots to sync remotely with any kind of ship provided they had the access codes or were really good at hacking. Fortunately, I was fairly good at the latter. But the problem remained that using it at the moment was dangerous and could cause – according to my implant neurologist – a variety of effects ranging from nausea and vomiting to unconsciousness and death. Not a very attractive premise, but I’d have to do it if I was going to get this pilot to safety.
In my short hesitation I failed to notice the railgun still attached to the hull twitching. Nor the fact that its power cables were still connected and that it was online and ready to fire. So, when I snapped out of my stupor and readied myself to sync with the Katana, I found myself looking at a very large, very deadly military-grade weapon loaded with rounds capable of shredding through several inches of osmium steel.
I leapt to the side as it fired off the shot with a roar like thunder. The pellets missed my legs by inches, instead tearing up the ground beind me into a mound of dirt. I hit the grass and rolled a few metres, unable to move from shock. I just lay there, wide-eyed, staring up at the night sky and wondering how narrowly I dodged death.
When I finally came back to my senses, I hefted myself up with a feeble groan and stumbled over to lean against the bulk of the Katana for support. I remember throwing up twice in the minute that followed. Once that was said and done, getting the damned implant to switch on was a challenge unto itself from my nerves. I couldn’t. Stop. Jittering!
A grid of orange light flickered across my vision. At least it was working. No dizziness, no restricted breathing. Everything was perfectly normal. The comms channel the ship had been using was fairly easy to identify, spanning across half a kilohertz. All the digital defences were offline; no firewall, no access tracing, no port ejection system. I didn’t even have to rummage around for the central computer codes: all were stored neatly on a hotspare. It wasn’t even coded with a fourier transform.
A small map of dots, triangles and rectangles in the top right of my vision displayed the network map. Every node, folder and pathway I used brought me slighltly closer to the mainframe, excapet for one point where I found some odd bytes isolated from the system storage. These had been coded with an enigma format, but the SID made short work of it and coverted it to text for me to read:
Precursor artefact identification 0014 - SCEPTRE.
What the hell was Sceptre? A precursor relic? What did it do? What was it for? I checked the modification log. It had been changed just once, but drastically. There was supposed to be an entire report, but a Tech beauraucrat had erased it from the memory. The restoration files had been corrupted, so I couldn’t get anything from those.
I turned my attention back to the mainframe and found my way into the processor. I impulsively looked at the registers and found fragments of a log. The cache presumably held the rest of it, so I looked there. As I had expected, just a small record of some of the last few commands sent and received by the CPU turned up:
[00:00:42.3521]I/O - Received order to engage Diffusion Shield from User.
[00:00:42.3521]I/O - Diffusion Shield activated.
[00:00:39.7640]LOG - High thermal damage received by Diffusion Shield.
[00:00:35.4466]LOG - Energy reserves depleted. Diffusion Shield offline.
[00:00:32:3619]WARNING - Hull damage suffered.
[00:00:31:6749]WARNING - Hull damage suffered.
[00:00:29:1839]DANGER - Fusion drive damaged.
[00:00:29:1839]DANGER - Hull section lost.
[00:00:28.4950]DANGER - Turret 1 connection lost.
[00:00:19.0274]DANGER - Turrets 3 and 4 connection lost.
[00:00:18.9284]WARNING - Hull damage suffered.
[00:00:17.9552]CRITICAL - Extreme hull damage suffered.
[00:00:16.3409]I/O - Received order to engage Liquid Metal Repair System from User.
[00:00:16:3408]I/O - Liquid Metal Repair System activated.
[00:00:14:5666]DANGER - User SID connection lost.
[00:00:02:5041]DANGER - Imminent impact detected.
[00:00:02:3774]I/O - Emergency Barrier activated.
[00:00:01:8104]CRITICAL - Extreme hull damage suffered. Emergency Barrier negated majority of damage.
[00:00:01:6400]CRITICAL - Catastrophic internal systems failure detected.
[00:00:00:0000]FATAL ERROR - Mainframe damaged. Ship damage detection system connection lost. CPU connection lost. Memory BUS failure. Connection to all mass storage devices lost.
[uNKNOWN]FATAL ERROR - User biodigital scans indicate extreme bodily injury. Diagnosis - User has suffered a lethal impact. Most likely terminated.
[uNKNOWN]FATAL ERROR - Total systems failure. Log end.
I exited the cache and accessed the processor stack. Fortunately, the connection loss had not been total and I was able to manually insert one last command before terminating the remote access. The hydraulics did the rest for me, a small portion of the Katana’s frontal section splitting down the middle. Smoke burst forth, curling upwards, like grey fingers trying to grasp the night. I looked back down at tue cockpit, and my jaw nearly fell off.
That was the singularly most drop-dead gorgeous girl I had ever seen in my life. That’s not just for poetic effect, either. She looked about my age - maybe a little younger - about five feet nine inches in height. She seemed rather… gifted… which is the best way of saying it. Had a far better figure than most girls in the town, bar a few that must have gone to the surgeons for implants (not the biomechanical kind either). Dark hair, almost coal black, fell to about her shoulders, and was separated into strands bound in small ringlets. She was dressed in attire typical to a Jericho individual: normal hood and robes, but she was wearing a jumpsuit underneath, obviously for flying. I wore a similar sort of thing when I was practicing in the Hawk M.
You going to stand here all night?
Oh, yes. Forgotten what I was there for.
I clambered up the sides of the Katana - not as easy as you would imagine, given those things have very smooth hulls - and pulled myself over the edge of the cockpit. The biodigital scans were probably corrupted, as she was perfectly fine apart from some slight bruising and a large cut above her eyebrow. She was definitely unconscious, though. Laying my index and middle fingers on the side of her neck told me her heart was still beating; the pulse was faint, but still there. Her breathing wasn’t strained: I could tell by the way her chest rose and fell evenly. No immediate medical concerns, then.
Now came the part of taking her somewhere to rest. And there was only one particular place I could think of at the time where someone wouldn’t give me strange looks or report me to the Enforcers. Sighing, I looped an arm around her neck and gently lifted her over my shoulder.
This was going to be a long night.