Tonya sat quietly in the pilot’s chair. She wasn’t piloting though. The ship maneuvered on its own as the system screens cycled through minute engine and power adjustments.
One point in her favor, Nagia and his gang weren’t on her scanners anymore. Second point, Janus hadn’t popped the ’lock and flushed her out into space … yet.
It had been quiet for about ten minutes. She didn’t want to disturb it. Suddenly all the screens stopped cycling.
“I have finished consolidating my amended code with your systems,” the digitized voice said over the speaker.
“Um, okay.” Tonya wasn’t sure what that meant.
“I am now current on our society’s progress over the last seven hundred years,” the voice said from another speaker.
Our? Tonya decided not to pry. Not with the airlock-scenario fresh on her mind. “Oh yeah?” was all she could come up with.
“The current sociopolitical climate of the UEE is troubling. Perhaps we could debate solutions.”
“Maybe later.” Tonya grew a little bolder. “I assume you know that I’m looking for the Artemis.”
“Yes, I apologize. I have just been on a seven-hundred-year simulation and was merely looking for healthy dialectic.” A tense few seconds passed. “We may discuss the Artemis.”
“What happened in the sim?”
“Before continuing you should acknowledge that my responses and courses of action taken during the simulation may have differed from the Original Janus.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“I was still attempting to fulfill my secondary objective when the simulation ended. Passenger capacity was at ninety-eight percent.”
“What happened to the other two percent?” Tonya hoped that the explanation didn’t involve raging AI’s or airlocks.
“The repairs in what you call Stanton System forced me to awaken several members of the engineering crew to fix it. Unfortunately, the planet’s environment was too dangerous to enact enduring repairs so we had to relocate.”
“You went to another planet?”
The screen nearest Tonya switched to display the Artemis-sim’s navdata, a line leading from Stanton System through a patch of unknown space and ultimately stopping in another system. She comped a current starmap over the position, and enlarged the display. It centered on a planet in a known system.
“Oso System,” Tonya whispered. The thrill of the hunt hummed through her body. She grinned and took the controls to plot a course.
But nothing worked.
“Hey Janus, could I fly?”
There was a long pause.
* * * *
The UEE Subcommittee for Development & Expansion classified Oso as a Developing System, which meant, very simply, that life was discovered on one of the worlds (Oso II) and it was to be allowed to develop at its own pace without ‘outside’ interference. A hundred years ago, the UEE prided itself on the vigil it maintained to protect the sanctity of this system. Entire wings of fighters would patrol and escort any traffic. After the Synthworld, most of those resources slowly began to dry up. Restrictions on travel were loosened, but venture too close to Oso II and you still risked missile lock at best, destruction at worst.
Nowadays, a skeleton crew of ragtag military burnouts maintained the system. Tonya figured they could be bribed. All the two-bit idiots selling flo-pets lifted fresh from Kallis System were proof of that. She just didn’t know how to initiate that sort of thing, and attempting to bribe a government agent was not the easiest charge to dodge if she happened to find an honest one.
Besides, she suspected she couldn’t afford the bribe anyway and she wasn’t going to risk calling Arlington or any of his assistants.
Tonya was not thrilled about her new pilot so she passed the time looking through her archive to see if any of her old credentials and tags were still valid. She was surprised how much it stung to revisit all the institutions and research groups she’d been a part of over the years. The Artemis could be the key to lock up this dismal chapter of her life and get back to the way things used to be.
Life on the drift wasn’t that bad. It even had its perks, but a clean slate? Maybe a position at a research institute where she could be left alone? That was even better.
“We have arrived, Tonya.”
She closed down the archive and looked at the six planets circling a blazing white star ahead of her. The UEE military towed in Deep-Space platforms at each of the jump-points, while patrols flew in loose formations around the system. Oso II, the inhabited planet and their destination, was the epicenter.
A transport ship lumbered past the Beacon II and dropped into the jump-point. The vast array of scanners on her ship allowed Tonya to get a good look at Oso II long before they were going to pass it.
Aside from the occasional patrols, the UEE seemed to put the bulk of its security in counter-intrusion scanners. The system consisted of an array of spheres placed in a fixed orbit around the world. The spheres would flash the planet in a repeating pre-programmed cycle to determine if any foreign objects had been introduced.
“Can you identify the scan cycle of that web?”
“I believe so.”
While Janus worked, Tonya started tracking patrol patterns. Minutes later, Janus displayed a rendering of the scan pattern around Oso II. It was a wave that continuously encircled the planet. The average time between scans was around thirty-four minutes.
That was their way in. If she could time her descent after a scan’s pass, she could follow the wave and hopefully get a good look over the planet’s surface for traces of the Artemis, and either land or withdraw before the next pass of the scanners.
“Hey Janus, restore manual control of the ship.” There was a long pause.
“Tonya, I should remind you that attempting to land on a Developing Planet is a serious violation of UEE statutes –“
“Only if you get caught.”
“Not to mention the potential for irreparable harm to the indigenous species.”
“We’re just going to take a look.” The flight controls began to work again. “Besides, if we get caught, I’ll just say you were flying.”
“I don’t think they will believe that, Tonya.”
“You’re going to be on scanning detail. Use the metal sample from the Artemis wreckage to focus your sweep.”
“I am quite capable of both functions simultaneously. I did pilot a transport vessel for seven hundred years.”
The Beacon II approached the planet. A wing of UEE patrols had passed several minutes ago. She waited for her cue.
“Now,” Janus said.
Tonya broke away from the shipping lane and burned toward the planet. The array of scanning spheres rapidly approached. Tonya kept her course and speed. Right before she passed the barrier, the scan wave passed.
The Beacon II dove into the atmosphere. Noise suddenly enveloped the craft. She pulled up to stay in the upper atmosphere and burned across the sky, following the scan wave.
The planet’s gravity pulled heavily on the ship. She’d noticed that Oso II’s gravity was significantly stronger than on most planets. The strain in her arms to keep the ship level and the rapid consumption of fuel was becoming a fast testament of how different it was.
“I would notify you immediately if I did.”
Tonya double-checked the screen. The scan wave pulled ahead and disappeared around the curve of the planet.
“How long ’til the scan comes back around?” she asked. The ship hit some turbulence.
Tonya looked down. She caught glimpses of the world below through the occasional breaks in the clouds. Most of it seemed to be tropical stretches of deep emerald forests and massive mountain ranges. She started to weave her flight pattern, zigzagging across the sky to allow for a wider scan range.
“Eight minutes,” Janus reported.
She was cutting awfully close to make-or-break time. It would take three minutes to clear the scanning spheres if she left, and around five to land. She could try to break atmo then resume the search once the wave passed, but she wasn’t optimistic she could repeat that without getting spotted by a patrol.
“I found something.” Janus showed Tonya a faint signal in a wooded mountain range.
That settled that debate. Tonya dove down. The hull shook violently as clouds whipped past. Suddenly drops of rain spattered across the viewports.
“Four minutes until scan. I do not believe there is enough time to find a satisfactory landing position.”
“Don’t trust me, Janus?” Tonya struggled to keep the ship under control. The gravity was really playing hell with their flight path.
“I will amend my statement.”
“You do that.”
Tonya pulled the ship up. The rain had stopped as she raced through the narrow canyons of steaming forests. Her eyes scanned the landscape for a covered landing position.
“One minute, Tonya.”
Tonya popped the retro-thrusters a couple times to cut down her speed and swung the Beacon II underneath a rocky overhang. Rocks and branches swirled in the roar of the engines.
She dropped the ship to the deck, probably a little harder than was safe, and cut the engines nanoseconds before the wave passed.
“Not bad, right?” Tonya sat back in the pilot’s seat. The engines were still spinning down.
“I will abstain from commenting.”
* * * *
The trees were thick. Tall winding trunks rose up toward the sky, then intertwined to shade out the sun. The forest hissed from the rising steam of the rain that seeped through the canopy. Strange chirping noises echoed from the clusters of leaves overhead.
According to her scanner, the Artemis was about four kilometres away. Tonya’s new environment suit had a basic exo-skeleton incorporated into the design to help counteract various gravitational conditions. Even with that, she could feel the strain against her body. Simple movements felt labored and slow as she trudged through the underbrush.
On her way up a rocky incline, Tonya had to stop several times to catch her breath. Strange greyish worms slipped among the wet leaves underfoot to soak up the remaining rainwater before burrowing back into the soil.
A branch snapped. Tonya froze and turned. Further down the hill, also winded and suffering from the gravity’s effects, was a person. Based on the size and style of the environment suit, it was a human, following the directions on a hand scanner. The clear face-plate looked up, right at Tonya.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Tonya slurred.
Senzen momentarily gaped in amazement, then grinned at her.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
. . . to be continued
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