Copyright © 2017
Nathan M. Hurst
& Amir Zand
The storm was unforgiving, swells rising and falling over 100 standards, the cargo liner Palomino thrown around as if it was a toy of the gods. The ship was the pride of the fleet, vast in scale and hauling a cargo enough to feed a small city for a year, material and products, vehicles and weapons. A microcosm of life supported by the single trade delivery of this colossal vessel.
A camera mounted on the ship’s communications array had captured something in the trough of the last swell, a huge flat surface several hundred standards wide and seemingly square, although difficult to make out from the rolling image. Alarms suddenly began to go off, not audible to the silence of the camera images, but the alert was made visible by flashing red lights up the centreline of the vessel, a warning to any sailors on deck.
Trying to turn a ship of that size within that distance was an impossibility, the course was set. As the ocean rose again the danger seemed to go away, but it was an illusion. Momentum powered the vessel onwards, the sea fell away dropping the bow of the ship with all the force gravity could exert onto the submerged surface. The shock of the violent collision ran the length of the ship and the camera image vibrated to a blur.
He wondered how the ships sonar had not picked up the image, then remembered his experience at Thingvellir. The structure had risen from the depths without warning and suddenly, there would have been no indication to the crew of what was happening. He continued to watch as the front of the ship crushed and crumpled, shunted metal moved like a concertina then began to rend and tear apart.
Water rose over the bow and the vast vessel was again lifted, this time for the killing blow. Descending for the second time the forecastle exploded opening a gaping wound into which the icy black waters of the sea flooded in, the insides of the hull now without shielding from the white foaming tentacles of the dark and malevolent depths.
She started to nose down and dive.
As if a whale diving for the deep the ship descended below the waves, stern rising into the air as it went. The camera kept recording. Floodlights from the communications array which would normally be illuminating the deck now highlighted the grey surface of a structure he knew, the smooth surface patterned with interlocking circular icons. He had seen them before. The ship scraped against the surface of the structure on the way down but seemed to make no marks as it did so. The motion and momentum of the ship carried the camera further towards the structure, his display becoming a single shade of grey as the camera lost focus. There was another shudder as the communications array struck the structure and was ripped from the vessel. Tumbling over and over, grey and black alternated across the screen, then a sharp flash of static.
The recording ended.
Jegan Robertsson had forgotten how many times he had watched the Palomino footage. All fifty crew had been lost, the official news release from the company had been that the ship had been overcome by a rogue wave. It was a risk all mariners understood and accepted, the story had lasted no more than a day in the global consciousness.
But the evidence he had before him painted another picture. The investigative journalist in him had to get to the truth, and to that end, the last few months had been all about looking for clues. However, all his training and all his instincts had to this point failed to reveal anything meaningful about the origins of the phenomenon which had actually sunk the Palomino.
Since his first encounter with the anomalous structure on Fastvatn, he had become restless. A hunger for understanding had overtaken him, to discover what these monoliths were. In that pursuit of knowledge he had started to scour as many news channels and feeds as he could, as many archives as he had access for. His consumption of information was like some addiction, turning over the history of the world in order to find that one piece of information which would give sense to it all.
But the feeds were strangely silent.
The media and the world seemed not to have witnessed a single event. Certainly, there was no information in the data feeds.
Sleep was becoming more elusive. Each night he would shut his eyes and try to rest, but his mind would not cooperate. Closing his eyes would be like a trigger releasing the memories of long dead souls permitting them to invade his thoughts, his mind would instantly go to work trying to decipher the images and visions he saw. A child’s voice would speak to him occasionally, it would know his name, they would walk through corridors and spaces filled with light and objects he had no comprehension of. She would show him places he felt he recognised, but were worlds out of time. He would see planets and stars, astrogation charts and flyby visions of cities and planets bustling with life and humanity. It was relentless.
Estel, his assigned protector, had begun to give him some compound to aid sleep, after those moments of complete dark, he would wake feeling like death itself, his features had even taken on a sunken gaunt appearance to match.
Sometimes he would feel close, like some vague understanding lay just out of reach, just slightly beyond the veil of his furthest recollections. His efforts tantalising, but nonetheless, a failure.
His first lead came from an unlikely source. The connection which bridged the known and unknown. His meandering investigation had uncovered news of the T80-1 stardrive research programme on the Transasia peninsula of Luna Point. Transasia news feeds were boasting of the successful testing of their latest drive, it would cut the time taken to reach the new worlds from years to months. It was a startling revelation. The new technology was revealed to be from research into accelerated reverse quantum fields. ARQ Fields, as they had been quickly dubbed by the scientists and engineers, created particle ladders over which the drive unit could traverse. At this time the technology was unstable, but the T80-1 programme had proved the concept. Funding would now follow to refine the project findings, after which they estimated that within five years the first ships would be fitted with ARQ Field drives.
He had been moving before Estel had time to stop him. Estel only just caught up with him before he reached the commanders office. The knock he gave on the door as he entered was a courteous reflex, he opened the door passing the two bewildered guards without hesitation. Estel waved them back.
“Commander, I need transport to Luna Point.”
“Transasia?” replied Commander Hurley with a raised eyebrow. “Explain it to me.”
He put his palms on the desk and hung his head, closing his eyes to concentrate. Condensing his expansive, turbulent thoughts into some coherent linear explanation. It took several moments to achieve.
“I’ve been looking for similarities in the anomalous events. Geological activity, time of day, year, celestial orientation, proximity of vehicles or aircraft to the structures at the time of emergence, anything which might seem even remotely connected, but nothing was working. Until today.”
He moved to the map display desk, tapped the Luna Point peninsula and the image zoomed in, he tapped again over a facility which was dotted with bunkers, hangars and launch pads. He highlighted a hangar.
“Here,” he pointed, an icon circled the hangar and pulsed green, the diameter growing and shrinking as it rotated. “This hangar, it houses the latest T80-1 ARQ Field stardrive experiments. They have performed several over the last few months, the first of which coincided with the emergence of the first unidentified structure. There have been several tests since, each time we have shortly after discovered another structure.” He zoomed out on the world view and tapped a control at the bottom of the screen, the location of all the known unidentified structures highlighted and flashing.
“I’ll send a team. You brief them on what you need. But you will stay here.”
That didn’t sit well with him. He was being side-lined.
“No! I need to be there.”
“We can’t afford to let you go, Jagen.” The commander was insistent, and he understood the argument. “You are the only one who has been able to make any contact with these structures, and we can’t lose you on some recon mission. You know you have half the world’s governments looking for you, don’t you?”
It had been a consequence of broadcasting his findings and scouting for buyers for his article on the Thingvellir incident. He had raised his head above the parapet and in his haste to get his story out before others, he hadn’t realised there were no others. Governments were clamping down and covering up, the military moving to stop the story at source. He was now the missing piece everyone wanted, or wanted dead. If they couldn’t have his knowledge, they would destroy him in order to stop others obtaining it.
“But I need to be there, on site. I can’t tell you what I’m looking for until I’m there. I must be there. We need the key to the front door, and that’s what this will give us, but I won’t know how to achieve that until I’m there.” He could play hard-ball too. “What is it to be?”
The flight had been long. An intercontinental charter flight to the Transasia coast, then a small cruiser, island hopping down the Luna Peninsula. His team was now five strong; him, Estel and three others. A small infiltration unit to probe and penetrate the research facility. They didn’t know how much time they had before the next ARQ Field drive test, but to him it was the design he wanted, the detail on how the technology worked, that would be his key. Knowing how they were generating the ARQ Field was becoming all consuming, as if the voices of the dead were driving him, guiding him to this purpose, telling him exactly what he needed to reach his goal.
Then he would be home. A warm sensation of being at peace, of total tranquillity would flow through him momentarily when he thought of being back at the Thingvellir monolith. He could never stay focused long enough to stay in that emotional place, but he reasoned that once he was there, once he had returned with the stardrive information in hand, he would stay in that moment forever. All he needed was that design detail.
He had never been on a recon or infiltration mission before, but he found himself thinking it to be similar to his own line of work in some respects. Investigative journalism was all about laying the groundwork. Success of your article was due in large part to the research and information gathering at the start of the process. So, for the first three days on arrival at Lunar Point, he found himself sat in fields and up trees with vision enhanced goggles, planting sensors, taking notes and observing all aspects of the security teams movements over the period. It all felt very familiar.
Observations of the Luna Point security team told him they were good. Over the three days they didn’t cycle the same people twice, shift changeover was irregular, patrol routes of the vast complex appeared random. His own experience didn’t show him a way in, but Estel clearly knew something he didn’t.
“We go tonight,” Estel said.
Back at the run-down shack of a safe-house the far side of the local town of Mae Su. He had been on the bed with his eyes closed trying to rest, but Estel had clearly become used to his manner and seemed to know when he wasn’t sleeping.
“Good,” he replied. He had no idea how they would breach the complex, but Estel was the tactician.
“Briefing in two hours.”
The crates had been with them the whole trip, he had ignored them. Each had a serial number and a colour coded lid in a language he didn’t understand. They had mostly been used as seating, as there was little furniture in the safe-house. After Estel had imparted his plan for ingress to the stardrive test facility, he had indicated to each of the crates. Tactical combat suits, state of the art, jump packs and enhanced physical performance mods. It would ramp their capability up to that of ten times their number. He, however, would not be getting any weaponry. Each to their own purpose, his job was to obtain the information on the stardrive, confirmation of its design and test results. Inexperienced with weapons as he was, if he had one he would likely shoot himself in some freakish accident, or one of his team. He decided getting shot by anyone was not ideal. If he was unarmed, he was not a threat, hopefully that would be some measure of safety in itself; thought the man in a tactical combat suit. The target on him was writ large.
In fast, out fast.
It never went that way.
Approach to the facility had been straightforward. The team had found an insider. A security guard, paid precious little and with an addiction to Kassan, or White Light as it was known. It was powerful and blinding, but gave the user an overwhelming sense of calm and serenity. Bliss with a price – the trade off a temporary but complete visual white out during the high. He never understood the appeal. They used the leverage, payed off his debts, gained access to the vehicle parking bay inside the outer perimeter fence.
Climbing from the cramped confines of the security guards van, they quickly and quietly stood in a line towards the inner perimeter fence and hit their jump pack thrusters. Clearing no-man’s-land between the fence and their target, they landed on the roof of the research building. There were two coughs from Estel’s suppressed sidearm and two guards he had not even seen fell to the floor. The team were on the move to the rooftop doorway before he had time to register the faces of the dead. Anonymous shadows in the dark, they were in the upper stairwell of the research hangar in less than fifteen seconds.
They had been in position for a couple of minutes, the upper gantry of the test bay was a perfect vantage point, and that high up they were somewhat obscured as most of the bright lights to the building were aimed at the lower levels and especially at the central test area which contained a rather unimaginative large tin can shaped cylinder. The rest of the hangar was almost empty except for a concrete bunker style control room, slightly elevated from the ground, but still far below them.
“That is where we need to be,” he said in hushed tones to Estel. He simply nodded a response. Then he thought aloud, “And where is everyone?”
His answer came in an announcement across the public address system, first in Transasiain, then repeated in Usea. Most of the world understood two of the main continental languages, he picked up on the Usea.
“Drive test in 60 seconds, six-zero seconds. Make your way to your designated stations or safe area.” The announcement was accompanied by several red flashing lights around the hangar and on the oversized tin can in the middle.
Already half way down the gantry steps to the control room, the main lights went dark while the red flashing lights continued. A count down started from ten. They were not going to make it to the control room before the test happened. Some subconscious part of him took a real interest in what was happening in the centre of the hangar, he slowed and the others became a distant jumble of forms as they continued to descend step by step. A low level hum had begun to rise in volume about him, humming like a bee in his ear, disturbing his suits comm system. The stardrive chamber appeared to fluoresce for a moment, then the sound stopped with a heavy mechanical clunk and the lights came back on, red lights off.
“Drive test complete,” came the follow up announcement. “The floor and chamber are safe.”
Then things went to shit.
Estel and the rest of his team were not quite at the control room door when it opened. An armed security guard walked through and was clearly unprepared and surprised to see a squad in tactical gear ten paces ahead of him. There was a moment of hesitation from all involved as calculations were made, assessments to risk and outcome.
“Alarm!” The guard shouted at the top of his voice before he was propelled back through the doorway by a barrage of fire from the Estel’s team. The red lights were flashing again, this time accompanied by an ear splitting siren. He lost sight of the team as they attacked the room, working through the doorway one of them fell, struck by automatic fire which also chewed the door frame and wall apart. The others were into the room, gunfire flaring and rattling as he jumped the last few steps to the lower gantry and the control room.
“We need them alive!” he found himself shouting. “Cease fire! We need them alive!” Bullets drew a line towards him as he entered the room, one clipping his shoulder spinning him to the floor. He had a weird immediate view of the ceiling which confused him, he had been looking at the forward control desk. Then the ache in his shoulder physically explained his situation. Doing any more stupid screaming like that would get him killed quickly. He scrambled to cover behind one of the server bays at the rear of the room and managed to sit up.
The shooting and screaming stopped.
“Jagen,” came a booming voice from the other side of the server stack. “You’re up.”
Walking cautiously into the a bloodied and tatty control room, he tried to focus on the task. The information he was compelled towards was a fingertip away. Estel stood with his side arm pointed at the head of a man in a red jumpsuit, Cramer was written on a name badge on his chest.
“Dr Carl Cramer,” he asked. The man looked at him with an expression of surprise. “No time for introductions I’m afraid, but you need to cooperate, right now. Like everyone’s life depends on it.” Cramer’s eyes went wide, more confusion.
He physically sat Cramer at the main terminal, and took out an m-stack from one of his suits storage pouches and handed it to the scientist.
“Show me how this drive system works, I need designs and test results. Put them on this m-stack. You have 60 seconds.”
“It’s going to take longer than that,” said Cramer.
“No it won’t. Relevant design information to the ARQ Field only, and test results.”
He noticed Estel’s gaze wander through the control room window and out to the floor below. He knew who he was looking for. The security response team would be with them soon. They had estimated they would have 60 seconds. Cramer would need to be faster.
“Now, Cramer,” he reiterated. Estel for effect, put the barrel of his sidearm to Cramer’s temple and pushed the intimidation home. “Is this information worth dying for? How would you’re wife feel about that? Playing second to your work, again.”
A confused and frightened frown ran across Cramer’s face. He could see Cramer’s mind about to explode with the contradictions racing through his thoughts, but he started to access the terminal. He put the m-stack into the data transfer unit and he could see download progress.
“30 seconds,” came a voice from behind them both. Estel was acutely aware of the mission time and they needed to go.
“Too late,” said another of the team. “Here they come.”
“That!” He interrupted Cramer’s frenzied work. A file name had shot past the windows opening and closing as files were queued for the m-stack copy. It had caught his attention. Palomino. Surely it couldn’t be coincidence? Maybe it was, he would check later. “Transfer the Palomino file too.”
“No time,” said Estel.
“Do it,” he said in Cramer’s ear, leaning in so close they may as well have been sat in the same seat.
The siren suddenly cut out. All they could hear for a moment was the frantic clack, clack, clack of Cramer’s terminal keys. A slight whistle of feedback across the public address system introduced the Transasian tones of a negotiator. He was completely ignored by the team in the control room, but the additional time it gave them was useful.
“Time to leave,” stated Estel, “Laana, create an exit.”
“It’s going to be loud,” she said. She got to work.
“Stan, get those people ready to go out the door on my mark.”
“Moving,” replied Stan. “You heard people. A nice queue at the door. Let’s go.” The remaining scientists were herded and lined up at the door, cowed and scared they slowly made their way, not knowing what the next few seconds would bring.
A light flashed on the terminal, the copy was complete. Cramer pulled the m-stack from its port and handed it back.
“Join the others, now,” stated Estel. Cramer didn’t need to be asked twice. It was his way out.
“Everyone set?” The sound of the response team negotiator was still mumbling in the background. Estel looked round the room, his team confirmed.
The control room door was flung open and the remaining science team streamed out and down the gantry steps to the main floor below. It had the desired effect from the security team, the negotiator was cut short as the response team attempted to receive the hostages from the only accessway they had to the control room. Shooting their own scientists would not be something they would want to do.
“Laana, now!” commanded Estel, as the last scientist left the room.
An explosion ripped through the room, the overpressure blowing out all the windows and raining glass down on the floor below, the escaping scientists and the security team. Instantly, a hail of fire came flooding in, mainly angled from the ground up to them which peppered the ceiling, but some guards had been moved to the gantry opposite during the long monologue by the negotiator, their fire came straight in with more accuracy.
“Go, go, go!” hollered Estel over the hurricane of sound. They all moved.
As he reached the back of the room the wall which had been there was now replaced by the clear twinkling night sky. Laana was already away, Stan about to go, but a bullet laced its way between him and Estel. As Stan triggered his jump the damaged pack leaked fuel and span him uncontrollably into a flying spin, taking him away from their view. He didn’t have time to think what might have happened, he reached the hole in the wall and ignited his jump. He targeted his landing 30 standards from the outer perimeter and into the sea.
Tracking his descent, Laana landed before him, a splash rising up from the calm lightly undulating surface of waters off Luna Point. Seconds later he was engulfed in foaming bubbles as he entered the chill waters. He tumbled and rolled to a disorienting stop, his suit adjusting for neutral buoyancy, leaving him staring into blackness but feeling weirdly comforted by its cool embrace. His heart rate was peeking, his breathing hard, but he had what he needed. The monoliths would give up their secrets to him now, he had the key he knew they wanted. He would receive the answers that the most powerful in the world sought and failed to achieve. This was his moment.
A ping lit up in his visor display, a way point to his mini-sub. He saw two others ahead of him, Laana and Estel were prepping the subs when he got there. They exchanged momentary nods of greeting, simple affirmation of survival. Extraction would be a further five K's out to sea.