Warped: Four – Fear of a Black Planet

by Andrea Speed

Four – Fear of a Black Planet

Much like the Cryers, MoSys had released little information on the gates.

In fact, it was a capitol crime to release any less than generic information about the gates, as they were copyrighted and intellectually protected to the point where anybody who ever repaired anything on the gate was subject to mind wiping straight afterward. It’s possible the gates were created by someone in MoSys R& D, who was promptly made to forget they weren’t getting paid royalties for it. Talk about saving money.

war4.jpgBut the prevalent rumor was this was salvaged alien technology, and it was easy to believe, namely since they’d been around as far as Dar could remember. Not that that was all that long – in a chronological sense, she was only seventeen years old. And the cybernetic part of her brain was only a year old (body parts varied from one year to five months). ‘Facers were created from before birth; not just anyone could have cyberneural wetware – either your brain accepted the artificial dendrites, neurons, and axons, or it didn’t; it accepted the synthetic neurotransmitters or it didn’t; it accepted artificial gray matter, or it didn‘t. For every ‘Facer successfully created, roughly eight ended up dead. Those were actually astoundingly good odds, considering the way it used to be. It used to be they could only get one in a hundred. It did have a tendency to make you feel less special, though.

Jacked into the drive of the ship, she was the ship – she could see all of space around her, feel the ecstatic particles of the solar wind against her crystal skin, sense the thrilling lightness of zero gravity. She almost felt sorry for the people trapped in clumsy, purely organic bodies. They had no idea what they were missing.

The AI that regulated the gates was an idiot, and she could see its tightbeam tendrils shooting out across open space as soon as they crossed into the sensor perimeter. The gate was a huge dull metal ring, as large in diameter as your average moon (thirty three hundred kilometers ), although they could be smaller or larger by a few hundred meters. Radiation powered lights encircled the outer edge, so no dumbass ran into it (although to collide with a gate would be like running into a planet without seeing it). She shoved the AI off into a specially constructed blind alley of forged data and useless nonsense, feeding it forced codes and i.d. tracers until it found one it liked and withdrew. She broadcast the activation codes of the gate she needed, and it started to power up, the ring becoming a glowing circle in a backdrop of darkness.

Time was a funny thing, especially where the gates were concerned. It took no time at all to travel through them – you flew in, had a brief sensation of falling, and then came out the other side, in the system you wanted to be in. But time actually did run much faster while you were in it; a second in the gate was roughly an hour “real time” (RT), so while the transition took ten seconds, you came out with ten missing hours RT. Scientists were still studying the effects to see if it aged you, or conversely retarded the aging process. So far, studies had proved frequent travelers looked younger longer, but also had a tendency to have a dramatically shortened lifespan, although MoSys was quick to come out and deny any direct correlation.

The funny thing was, gate transition was a rare moment of parity between her and the organics. Gate travel was a complete sensor dead spot, save for some red shifted light that made her suspicious. Theoretically, in a dead space zone of a gate, she shouldn’t have been able to pick up anything.

Transition was nothing – a moment of overwhelming light and sensor data screaming across her cerebral cortex, the sensation of the bottom falling out of the universe – and then a lurch and coruscation of digital noise as they emerged out the other side of the gate in the Dracus system. Ansible transmissions confirmed that they had just lost twelve hours RT. She blocked out the ad for the latest nanotech restructuring surgery, and focused on the system laid out before her.

The Dracus system was one referred to as “junk”, once good for next to nothing. It one had a mineral rich asteroid belt around its old, K type main sequence star, but that had already been processed to death and was little more than dust. There were four planets, two gas giants and two rocky planets, with the rocky ones closer to the slowly dying, bloating sun, and the gas giants farther out. None were overly remarkable, and the larger of the gas giants had already been mined for usable gases and then abandoned. None of these planets were in the green zone for life, although some bacterial forms – never counted – were discovered on the second rocky planet. Like many of the junk systems, none of the planets had names, just designations: D1, D2, D3, and D4.

To the best of her and Bruno’s ability, they had pinpointed the message as coming from somewhere in this system, but they weren’t able to get more specific than that on such a brief transmission. But since this system had no means to transmit any kind of message, especially one on an unused frequency, it was suspicious. She had all her sensor eyes open for traps, weapon signatures and signal jammers, but so far the system seemed as cold and dead as it was supposed to be.

Until a full spectrum scan showed a weird little hot spot on a large moon in retrograde orbit around D3.

D3 was a ball of blue-gray gas the size of one point two Saturns, and with a layered, intricate ring system of pulverized debris and ice crystals encircling it, glowing with a pale blue luminescence that was almost beautiful. According to the records, D3 had seven moons, ranging in size from Ganymede class to Phobos class, and the moon with the hot spot was the largest. Designated D3.2, it did have an atmosphere and adequate heat, although it wasn’t quite breathable or temperate. Still, it was in what could be considered a green zone around D3, not too far from the sun to be freezing, and out of the bulk of the radiation the planet reflected. If MoSys was going to have a base or settlement around here, that was the only place it could be.

She proceeded carefully, only because it was possible that MoSys had a carrier hidden behind D3, or in its radiation “shadow”. Maybe even a base or ship on D3.2 – they’d made sudden leaps and bounds in their stealth technology. At least they had one type of sensor that that they couldn’t hide from. She opened her eyes inside the ship, and said, “Khal. Hey, you awake?”

After giving him fair warning, she looked inside his room. He was splayed out on his bed, not so much asleep as mildly comatose, with Blue sitting on his pillow right above his head, a single tentacle tip on his forehead in what looked to be a comforting gesture. She had no idea if Blue was actually intelligent like Khal claimed or not, but Khal had tried to teach Bruno some of Blue’s “color language”, and it was so nuanced and dependant on emotion he couldn’t quite get it. It could be Khal being completely bugfuck, or it could be an honest form of language with a truly alien complexity – probably only another Negotiator could tell the difference. “Blue, can you get him up? It’s important.”

Blue seemed to understand some of their language, or at least knew how aliens said her name, as she began slapping Khal on the forehead with her tentacle. That seemed to rouse him a bit, at least enough to snap, “Knock it off,” and roll over on his side.

“Khal, get up,” she urged. “Or I turn on the sprinklers.”

“Oh fuck,” he groaned, and rolled back over on his back, squinting up at the ceiling. “Can’t I just be stoned in peace?”

“Not at the moment. I need you to scan an area and make sure it’s clear.”

He sat up with a frustrated noise, and began patting his pockets, presumably for a stim hit. “What area? Didn’t we just hit someone?”

“We’re checking out a message that seems to be a distress call from Cryers.”

That made him stare upward in disbelief, his pupils so wide his eyes looked black. “Since when do we check out distress calls?”

“Since it turned out to be really weird.”

“Oh, I see. One of your intellectual puzzles.” He found a stim spray, and shot it down his throat. He rocked back for a moment, closing his eyes, and she noted that her sensors picked up a fifty percent jump in his heart rate. His health was remarkably poor; his constant see-saw use of drugs was ravaging his system, and the fact that his daily intake seemed limited to drugs and booze, and maybe some instant sushi when he did a drug that made him hungry, it was probably remarkable he was still functioning. It was the nasty secret of Negotiators, although why they kept it secret she had no idea: most were addicts, and MoSys was happy to feed their addictions to keep them in line. And most died shockingly young, with a suicide rate somewhere near ninety percent. Apparently living with other people’s emotions was even harder than living with your own.

He sat forward, took a deep breath through his nose, and let it out slowly through his mouth. After another moment, he said, “Okay. What am I searching for?”

“Hidden MoSys functionaries.”

“You think this is a trap?”

“It can’t be statistically dismissed.”

He snorted, as if that had been a funny thing to say, and stared at a mid-point of nothing, trying to focus with his mind. She could see the brown streaked green planet of D3.2 with her other set of eyes, a spot of neon over the soothing blue of D3. The planets needed names, didn’t they? She considered Jack and Lyria, but that didn’t sound right somehow.

She turned most of her attention back to Khal as soon as he started screaming.

These were deep, anguished howls, and Khal pitched off the bed and hit the floor, body twisting as if he was in the grip of a seizure. He made strange, strangled noises as his jaw clenched, trying to hold back a scream, as he dug in his pockets and sent all sorts of capsules, hypos, sprays, and strips skittering across the floor. He had a whole pharm in his pockets.

He found the one he wanted, tears streaming down his face and his veins standing out like cords on his neck as he picked up the hypo and stabbed it in his head, just below his right ear. Judging from the chemical signature, he had injected himself with cephalycholine, a synthetic neurotransmitter specially made for Negotiators – it blocked up the empathic receptors in their brain, numbing their abilities like Novocain used to deadened nerves. He laid on the floor, panting and sobbing as the neurotransmitters started to work, and then he pushed himself into a corner, curling up in a ball. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he gasped, trying to scrub the tears off his face.

“What’s the problem?” she finally asked.

He scoffed breathlessly, making an obscene gesture. “What’s wrong? Gods in a fucking bucket, Dar; there’s so much agony down there I can’t process it. There’s no one who’s a threat to us, if that’s what your asking. But something horrible’s happened.”

“What? And to whom?”

“Fuck, woman! I don’t know!” he wiped the snot from his nose with the back of his arm, but he was still crying, possibly not of his own volition. “I’m not even sure they’re Human! I just know that … it hurts, it fucking hurts.”

“What hurts? You’re implying there’s people down there.”

“There’s something down there,” he snapped. “They’re dying. I don’t know why or how, and I’m not sure I want to know. It’s too strong; it’s overpowering. I can’t sift it, I can’t make any sense of it. It‘s just pain.” Blue bumbled over to him, looking like a large and rather unsettling drunken spider, and put a tentacle on his leg. He patted it, like someone just put a hand on him.

She continued scanning the planet, and wondered if there was some kind of natural sensor interference, because she wasn’t picking up any life signs, or anything resembling technology. Just a low level, strange sort of radiation, which could theoretically be blocking some things … but not well enough to escape her notice. Unless there was something else going on. There had to be something else going on, because so far this made no sense at all.

Fairly well convinced there was no MoSys threat, she increased speed and angled down towards D3.2 . “Think you’ll be up for some EVA?”

Khal gave her a hollow eyed stare, dark rings around his eyes making them looked bruised. “You want to kill me, don’t you?”

“No. You’re doing a good enough job of that by yourself.”

It was another thing she just didn’t get about the organics. Even with your limited sensations, why would you want to destroy yourself and ruin your chance to accumulate any further data?

Strange things, the organics. She had no idea how they could stand themselves.

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