Maybe, just maybe, we’d have been better off not knowing.
Kan looked through the scout craft’s visor. The heavily tinted and shielded crystal revealed a sky out of the worst nightmares of a hyperactive stak addict. Purple dust clouds warred and lost with the dark edges of the accretion disk, with only a few stars dimly visible through the murk. But these were the only skies available to humanity now.
She tore her eyes away from the view. She’d seen it before, more times than she could count, and from all the angles available. Her instruments were showing her something much more interesting, and much more portentous. Something that might signify the end of human civilization in that sector of the galaxy, and, unless there were remnants the high command on Crystallia was unaware of, probably everywhere else as well.
There was nothing for her to do but watch. Even tightly focused laser communication was forbidden – a lesson that had been painfully learned. So she watched.
It seemed innocent enough: just some random piece of space debris, about a cubic meter in size, radiating nothing, just moving through space on a trajectory that it had followed since the early days of the galaxy.
But there was nothing innocent about it. The very fact that it was drifting along in this part of space was a dead giveaway. There was no way a random piece of debris would have been able to navigate the maze between the accretion disk and multiple black holes that would soon join the supermassive one at the center of the Milky Way. But even if this had, against all odds, been overlooked by earlier surveying missions, there was no way to account for the fact that it had, within the past four hours, corrected its flight path twice – neither change due to any natural phenomenon.
There was no doubt that it was an artificial artifact. And that meant that it was an enemy artifact. All that remained now was to see what it would do next, and to keep hiding. It seemed almost impossible that the artifact was there by chance.
Kan waited and watched, and waited and watched. Her tiny reconnaissance ship might be nearly invisible among the rocklets that made up the rings, but it wasn’t completely invisible. She would only be allowed to move when the planet came between her craft and the anomaly, four days hence.
Being a Recon Leader was lonely work.
As she neared Crystallia, Kan felt her heart in her throat. Had she been seen? Was some unseen, unimaginably advanced enemy following her at that very moment? Would she be the one to bring death to the colony? She’d taken every possible precaution, of course, but it would be impossible to know for certain before it was much too late.
There was still one last trick she could use, however. The world on which Crystallia was located had not been chosen at random. It was a medium-sized rocky planet with an atmosphere consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, with perhaps five percent oxygen. The beauty of the world was that it was still extremely active geologically, and dust from the constant eruptions made the sky opaque enough that all flying had to be done by instruments. To any outside observer, the evasive path programmed into her Recon craft would be impossible to follow under normal conditions.
Crystallia base itself was also well concealed, lying under a kilometer of rock in one of the few geographically inert areas of the planet. A perfect forward base for humanity’s colonies at the center of the galaxy.
Kan concentrated on her breathing, trying to get her heart rate under control. There would be no time to relax, not even time to shower, before her presentation before the Council. Even before she landed, the ground crew would ask her whether all was well. Her answer would see her whisked straight to the conference room, where the colony’s leaders – many pulled unceremoniously from other activities – would be waiting to hear her report. She consoled herself with the thought that the military leaders of Crystallia were accustomed to encountering disheveled military pilots.
What they weren’t used to was the kind of dire, desperate news she brought with her.
After what seemed like an endless series of evasive maneuvers in the atmosphere, her ship finally darted straight down. The ground came up to meet her, and then she was through the camouflaged blast doors. Once they closed behind her, radio silence could be broken.
“Welcome back, Recon Tau Osella. Is all well?”
“No,” she replied grimly. “Not at all.” It was all she was allowed to say, all they would expect.
“I see.” The voice on the other end of the communication had changed, the tone going from welcoming to flat. “Engaging debrief protocol.”
She sat in silence as the ship negotiated the winding tunnel, designed with defensibility in mind more than with ease of entry and exit. Eventually, her little Recon ship entered a huge hangar, and parked beside a cluster of enormous, heavily armored evacuation shuttles – long tubes built for speed that would barely clear the tunnel with a meter to each side in the curves.
As she landed, a group of black-clad techs swarmed over her ship like ants. The crew leader, a Recon lieutenant himself, opened the hatch and helped her out of the cockpit.
“Did you bring a bag?” he asked.
“In the lounge,” she replied, pointing towards the back of the ship, where a tiny cot and shielded entertainment system allowed a crewman to stretch out after a long day’s scouting. The space was so small that some unnamed Recon wag had taken one look and immediately christened it the lounge – a name which had stuck.
He nodded. “I’ve left orders for everything to be taken to your rooms. Please come with me.” Only then did she notice his eyes, cold and hard, with none of the ‘welcome back’ warmth usually reserved for pilots returning from the unfriendly depths of space. He knew where she was going.
She motioned for him to wait a moment, and pulled the recording memory chip from the control panel. He noticed the movement, and his eyes fell, but he said nothing.
They walked through a long white corridor. It was well-lit, and the walls were smooth stone, offering no concealment in case of an invasion. A shiver ran through her, thinking that, pretty soon, all the arguments about the absolute invulnerability of the Crystallia stronghold would be put to the test.
But Kan knew that she still had to do her duty, still had one last briefing before everyone was put on a war footing. The thought made her smile – the Recon team was always on a war footing, and the millions of civilians in the lower levels of the colony would, probably, be less than useless if they were discovered by hostile forces. Still, every effort would be made, every chink in the armor repaired.
They came to a blast door set in the corridor wall, and the lieutenant stopped in front of it. “This is as far as I go,” he informed her. His eyes searched her face for any trace of the information she brought with her. If not the actual data, then at least some inkling about how serious it was. She returned his gaze, impassive. He swallowed and nodded towards the door. “Good luck in there.” What he really meant, Kan knew, was ‘try not to give us any news we can’t survive in there.’
She returned the nod, and he moved off. The door slid towards her right, the foot thick layer of reinforced steel and concrete swishing silently, ending flush with the wall itself. Beyond the door was nothing but a large meeting room with no other exits, but an invading enemy wouldn’t know that, and would have to take the time to knock down the door and investigate. They couldn’t risk having the colony launch a counter-strike out of a hidden corridor. This far into the complex, many of the blast doors hid precisely that kind of corridor.
“Well met, Recon Leader Tau Osella.”
Since her eyes were unaccustomed to the sudden gloom of the meeting room, Kan couldn’t tell which of the men seated at the table had spoken. It seemed to her that the voice belonged to a white-haired Recon general near the end of the table opposite her, but it didn’t matter. She knew she was in a place no one wanted to be – hell, no one wanted anyone to be here.
“Well met,” she replied, the formula serving to calm her down as well as allowing her to have a look at the other people seated around the table. Military uniforms mixed with civilian dress approximately evenly – it had been decided that the council would be a joint enterprise, ostensibly to keep the military from taking unnecessary risks with civilian lives. In reality, the Recon Force often spoke with the voice of caution, never forgetting that the first priority was to avoid detection, and that the soldiers would be the first to suffer if this wasn’t achieved.
A wrinkled woman with steel-colored hair wearing a brown dress spoke next. Kan identified her as Rima Centauri Han, the elected spokesperson for the civilian contingent. Her voice showed that she was used to command – Kan could almost feel the centuries of Han family history in that imperious tone. “Sit down, Tau Osella,” the woman said. “Please report your findings.”
Kan sat and, trying to keep all emotion from her voice, began her report. “On the second day of my patrol, my instruments picked up a small unidentified mass, approaching from above the ecliptic. Both its speed and its direction led my instruments to classify it as possibly artificial. A pair of course corrections confirmed that it was self-powered.”
Many of the silent, elderly faces in the room turned pale when they heard this, but Rima nodded for her to continue, as if she’d heard nothing she wasn’t expecting.
“I continued to observe its passage until my movement brought the planet between it and my sensors.”
“Is there any chance you might have been observed?” The question came from a blocky man in uniform who should have known better. But she supposed it was understandable – everyone was on edge, and his days flying Recon ships were long gone. He probably didn’t remember the endless protocols, the determination to keep the colony safe, no matter what.
“No, sir,” she replied. “I followed the manual to the letter. Passive observation only and my ship was powered down the whole time. The only thing I did was drift with the rocks in Crystallia’s rings. There was no way I could have been detected unless the object was using some kind of active surveillance we are unaware of. My sensors picked up nothing out of the ordinary on any of the quantum or electromagnetic bands.”
A few heads nodded around the table, but everyone knew that the fact that her instruments hadn’t picked anything up was meaningless. The reason the colony was hidden there, in the most inhospitable wastelands of the galaxy and under a kilometer of rock, was precisely because they knew that their technology could never measure up against that employed by any of the enemies they knew about – and likely those they were unaware of as well. For all they knew, incredibly advanced scanners had located her ship, the hidden colony, and the colonies at Tonswell and Hammersmith 214. Hell, there was no reason that they wouldn’t have found the cloud colonies as well.
“Was it a human artifact?”
She swallowed. “It was about a cubic meter in size.” They all knew what that meant – no human could cross the interstellar void in a craft that size; there simply wasn’t enough room inside for a person and the apparatus to keep a person alive. Which meant that it was either a probe or a nanofactory. Or something even worse.
“Thank you, Recon Leader Tau Osella. I suppose I don’t need to remind you that you cannot speak to anyone outside this room about what you’ve seen?” the blocky general asked her.
“Of course not, sir.”
“Good. Please leave your recording chip on the table.”
She saluted and left.
Kan lowered herself into the steaming, bubbling bath and let out a sigh that was part released tension, part anxiety about what was coming, but mostly just pure physical happiness. The grime and sour, fearful sweat accumulated over the past four days had been weighing on her consciousness since she’d landed. The Recon vessel was equipped with an ultrasound bar and chemical cleansers, but it simply wasn’t large enough to carry the water required for bathing. She appreciated the tact of the council of elders, who’d made no mention of the way she must have smelled.
So she luxuriated in the water, leaving her worry aside for the moment. She let her hair out of its captivity, felt the weight of the long dark tresses as they became waterlogged, felt the past few days melting away. She was proud of her hair, and expressed her vanity with an assortment of treatment products that most of her friends in the force tended to view with contempt – or at least bemusement. But then again, most of the other women on the force tended to be humorless fanatics who wore their hair cropped as close as the men, another group of humorless fanatics.
She supposed they’d joined the force because of some overblown sense of responsibility, a feeling that humanity wouldn’t be able to survive without them. They were people who were able to ignore or belittle any mention of the Out Programs and explain at tortuous length the reason the Recon Force was so important.
Kan smiled and slathered conditioner into her hair. She swore she could feel the stuff being sucked into the strands. Pure pleasure.
And now the soap, something she’d been thinking about for nearly three days. Not bothering with lather, she simply passed the bar directly over her caramel-colored skin. It wasn’t as though she would be sharing that soap with anyone, after all.
At that thought, a wave of guilt came over her. She’d promised to comm Wilde as soon as she landed. While that had been impossible for obvious reasons, she felt that, at the very least, she should have let him know she was back after the council meeting. Well, too late now. She was actually better off this way. He would have wanted to come over, to go out or something, and she just wasn’t in the mood for his attention – he was sweet, but could be overly clingy.
She realized that her thoughts of Wilde had ruined the state of bliss, and a hard knot was threatening to form in her shoulder blades, and she forced herself to think about nothing other than the feel of the water against her skin.
But it was no use. There was an undercurrent of nameless dread which, no matter how Kan positioned herself in the water, no matter what she did with the control for the water jets, stubbornly refused to disappear. So she gave in and tried to understand what was driving it.
She came to the conclusion that what she knew, what was happening beyond the atmosphere, beyond the comforting kilometer of rock above her head, would never let her feel peace until she did something about it. She just couldn’t know what she did and remain inert, letting someone else deal with it. It went against her training, against everything she’d been taught. But most of all, it went against who she was.
“Crap,” she said to the empty bathroom, as she pushed herself out of the tub. “There are people handling this. The council will be in meetings. There are procedures. People with experience, not twenty-five-year-old Recon Leaders, no matter how many tours of open-space duty they might have under their belts.”
But it was no use. Maybe Wilde was right, and she needed to get a new job.
If this blew over, she would think about it but, in the meantime, she forgot about sleep and headed towards the Recon control center. Maybe the news had filtered far enough that, even though she wasn’t permitted to talk about it, she might be able to hear the latest speculation.
Greg shifted the weight from his left leg on to the right. His shift was nearly over, and he’d been standing at his post for seven and a half hours. More than enough to make his legs stiff, but nowhere near enough for him to need a break or to admit to the discomfort. He was a Marine, after all, and he wasn’t just showing his own toughness; the pride of the entire corps was at stake in his every action. He was one, but he represented many.
Especially here. The Recon people were always going on about how ground troops were obsolete, how true war was fought in the icy depths of space or in the ferocious gravity wells of gas giants. They seemed to take some kind of perverse pleasure in stressing that, if a ground war was necessary, everything was already lost.
Evidence, of course, tended to support this view. Over the past three centuries, human ground troops had been markedly ineffective against all enemies, whether they be insectoid Brillans, Blobs, or even Uploaders. Not only had they been massacred, but in the more recent engagements, they’d been unable to buy enough time to allow even partial evacuations. The services had been reorganized and merged into the Interstellar Marines, and tactics and weapons had come a long way since then, but the attitude towards them still hadn’t changed: they were cannon fodder useful only as a delaying tactic.
Even so, there were a few good things about working security in the Recon Rooms. In the first place, he could always lord it over Recon’s own security personnel – soft cases relieved every six hours who were really little more than gussied-up civilians and promoted members of the ground crews. Knowing there was a real soldier on duty allowed them to fall asleep, take walks to stretch their legs, and even, much to Greg’s amusement, borrow a chair to sit in while on duty.
Another benefit, more important, was the respect the pilots gave him. They might think that the Marines as an institution were an obsolete dinosaur, draining resources from where they would do most good, but they respected individual Marines for their bravery, knowing that, if it came to war, they would have what amounted to a suicide mission to keep the rest of the colony as safe as they could. Recon pilots, despite their superior attitude, understood bravery and respected it. He wasn’t required to salute officers of the Recon Force, but made an exception for the flyers.
But the main reason he actually looked forward to guard duty here was now approaching, her long strides eating up great chunks of terrain as she advanced down the stark white corridor. Her hair, loose and perfect today, swayed to the rhythm of her body.
Kan Tau Osella was, to Greg’s eye, the ideal Recon officer. Not only was she rumored to be on the fast track towards generalhood – she was already the youngest Recon Leader in the history of the Force – but she did it without seeming to care. She was brilliant without having to suck up, respected without having to take things to an extreme. She was the only woman in the force with long hair, the one who smiled most often, and the only one who ever gave him more than a short greeting. He told himself that the fact that she was a beautiful woman had nothing to do with it, which, of course, was a lie.
“Good Morning, Recon Leader Tau Osella,” he said, giving her a crisp salute.
She stopped in front of him. “Is it morning already?”
“Yes, four o’clock,” he replied, trying to avoid sounding concerned.
His worry must have gotten through anyway, because she smiled ruefully. “I’m fine. I just got in from a mission, had a bath, and came over. I didn’t really stop to think about the time.”
“Sounds reasonable,” he replied, impassive. It wasn’t unheard of for pilots to return from the timeless emptiness of space and not know what time the arbitrary clock in the base said it was, but it just didn’t seem like something Kan would do. The scanner to his left had already checked and verified her identity, so he moved out of the way to let her in, but she hesitated.
“How are you today?” she asked him.
“I’m fine. It was a bit of a slow night until about ten minutes ago. Six people came in during that time.” And now you, he didn’t say. He wanted to ask whether something was wrong, whether he should be afraid, but he knew better than that. He would be told what he needed to know, when he needed to know it.
“Did the colonel come in?” she asked.
“Just ahead of you,” he replied.
“Thank you.” She saluted him and walked past.
Greg now knew that something was very, very wrong. It wasn’t the salute itself, although it was unusual that any Recon Force officer would salute a Marine, especially just a grunt, but it was her eyes. Her eyes had been sad, downturned, and had said much more than she had probably intended.
Kan Tau Osella had been saying goodbye.
The entire story of Siege, published by Severed Press, is available on Amazon: