The Ritacha War: Breakthrough

Erwer, Sulim 05, 1028

He was awake instantly at the sound of the buzzer, his hands fumbling for the button on the console by his bed. "Cafran."

"Captain, we are approaching TD-102, and I think you should come to the bridge."

"Problem, Number One?"

"It's... interesting sir. It's easier if you come up to the bridge and see for yourself."

"Be there in a minute." Captain Tori Cafran rolled out of bed and stood up, slowly stretching every muscle in his body in a careful and disciplined fashion. The warm body still lying in bed shuffled slowly to its right, taking up his pillow as well as its own. He pulled the covers back a little and kissed Fez on her cheek. She was a good engineer as well as a good listener and lovemate, and he valued her presence on his ship. It didn't hurt that he found her slim, Ebony Vulpin form unbelievably appealing. She didn't stir, but he felt a smile spread across his muzzle anyway.

He used to think that being able to wake up instantly was a necessity for starship captains. In his years as a starship officer he had yet to be in a situation where being able to wake up instantly would have saved lives or effort. As he pulled the grey and dun yellow uniform over his bulky form, shoving his tail through the hole in the back and closing the zipper up the front to his throat, he wished for the ability to just lie in bed and drift; Fez had once mentioned how much she enjoyed those moments just before total sleep, when she was drifting and her mind half-dreaming. He envied her that time; he had always been the sort to just pass out and wake up. He rarely remembered his dreams, too.

He glanced both ways as he stepped out into the hallway; he had more than once been run over by an impatient ensign. Down one strip, turn right, SDisk. "Bridge."

"Captain on the Bridge," Rhonda announced patiently. He smiled tolerantly at her anachronism. Until taking command of the Ille Pendoro he had been used to announcing his own presence, or waiting until someone acknowledged him. His current ship didn't give him that opportunity unless he asked for it.

His first action was to locate T'Parrahn, his second officer. He found the melFelinzi hunched over one of the large display stations. "Find something exciting, number one?"

"I think so, sir." He smiled in a peculiar fashion, and Cafran's curiosity was peaked. He had rarely seen T'Parrahn excited about anything. "What have we got?"

"Evidence of intelligent life, sir."

Cafran's whiskers rose with surprise. "You're sure?" While Cafran was no particular expert on intelligent civilizations, he knew the basics. There were a total of five known planets in which sentient life had arisen and which still held sentient life. At least, it was assumed as such; few people had located the homeworld of the Sinox, and the secretive Shriaa had never allowed anyone to land on any of the three worlds they held.

"Sort of." T'Parrahn, whom Cafran usually thought of as just "Parr," let his whiskers droop. "While the forward probes are reporting large architectural structures and some orbital facilities as well, the background radiation would fry you or me in a matter of days and the average temperature along the planet's surface is something near four degrees."

Cafran's eyes closed slightly. "Nuclear war?"

"Yes, sir. Probably a long time ago. This looks like nuclear winter extended into a drawn-out ice age."

"No radio, no thermal siting... any signs of life?"

Parr shook his head. "No."

Cafran turned to front of the ship. There was no rational reason for why the bridge was oriented along the ship's axis of travel; nobody ever really "felt" the ship moving, and all of the imagery coming over their screens was transmitted from cameras and sensors. But it "felt right" to be facing the way the ship was moving. "Navigation, how long until we reach the fifth planet?"

"Two hours, ten minutes at current velocity, sir."

"Pilot, we're going to make an orbital insertion for a long- duration investigation. Understood?"

"Yes, sir. Expeditionary orbital plan logged in."

"Sir," Parr said, interrupting Cafran's thoughts, "Perhaps you should log this and call for a staff meeting."

"What time is it?" Cafran asked.

"Twenty-six thirty-seven."

"Staff meeting at twenty-eight hundred, Parr. You, me, Baker, Fezzik, Miroh, Heely, Glass, Masters."

"Yes, sir. They're not going to appreciate being awakened three hours early."

"That's why you're the first officer, Parr."

"Yes, sir."

Cafran was pleased, or more appropriately amazed, to see that everyone whose presence he had requested had arrived on time. Fezzik and Mandy Glass had an annoying tendency of arriving late to staff meetings. With Glass, that didn't bother him quite so much because he didn't expect military professionalism from someone who was not especially part of his transit crew, a scientist; they were used to discoveries in their own times on their own terms. But he did expect it from his chief engineer. This time, though, the news of their discovery had brought everyone running.

Parr leaned forward in his chair, his hands clasped together in front of him. "As you all know, at 22:00 this evening the Ille Pendoro entered the TD-102 star system for a routine exploration and cataloging of resources. Since we were arriving just before the fourth shift changeover, it was decided that we do an automated probe scan during the night and that during first and second shift next morning the science teams would conduct their usual investigations.

"At 26:10 that all changed with the discovery of major metropolitan structures on the fifth planet of the system as well as orbital facilities, at least one of them designed for occupation."

A ripple of excitement went through the members of the team. Cafran suppressed a small smile to see that even Rhonda's 'droid reacted appropriately. "Notice I haven't said anything about people. Some of you already know, and the rest of you will see shortly, that as far as we can determine these people wiped themselves out in a nuclear spasm."

Of the eight people arranged around the table, four drooped noticeably. "Do we know how long ago?" Doctor Baker asked.

"No, not really," Parr replied. "We will be able to estimate once we make orbit and bring one of their satellites inside for micrometeorite damage assessment, and if any of them used nuclear fuels a half-life analysis will provide us with an even more accurate picture of history." He held up his PADD and examined it for a moment. "At this point there's nothing to support the theory that there is any sentient, or even non-sentient, life on the planet's surface."

"Will there be expeditionary parties down to the surface?" Fezzik asked.

Cafran smiled. Almost every member of the sixty crewfen on board his ship held double duty; otherwise scientists would go crazy during transit and engineers would do the same during explorations. Executive members of the crew were generally chosen from scientific backgrounds unlikely to interfere with their primary mission, and upper-level scientists like Glass were trained in some aspect of ship's function but were rarely called upon. Every scout ship needed a technological archaeologist, but since there were only six events in recorded history that had required one, the TA was cross-trained from (or to) command, upper engineering, or personnel management. Fezzik, his chief of engineering, was also his technological archaeologist, and a chance at hacking away at the seventh 'dead' sentient species ever found certainly held her attention.

He cleared his throat. "If I determine that there is no inherent risk in doing so, yes, Fez, you can go down to the surface and pick up whatever your heart desires. It's almost time to head home and as you know the holds are almost empty."

"Thank you," she breathed, beaming. Cafran had to admit that making her happy made him feel good, and he worried momentarily about the professional detachment he was supposed to be projecting.

He looked over at Doctor Baker. "Sorry for waking you up this early, Doc. Looks like we're not gonna need you."

"Not a problem, Captain," Baker replied. "Even if my services aren't needed on the surface below, excitement like this always leads to an accident or unfortunate mishap. It's best that I know now that the crew is probably going to be mucking about on the planet's surface."

"Markov, how soon can you give us your time estimates?"

"As soon as Parr gets me a satellite to take apart and Miroh gives me a weather report."

Cafran nodded, bemused by Heely's uses of the term "weather report" to describe the local particle and energy environment. "Until we know more, there's not much left to discuss. I thank you all for coming so early this morning and I'll leave you to your individual teams. I'd like to be able to authorize you additional sleep time to return the three hours I took away from you this morning, but I don't think your staffs would let you have it."

"Probably not," Lieutenant Heely agreed.


It's fragile, Lieutenant Markov Heely thought as she floated closer to the satellite that the Ille Pendoro had been chasing for the past hour and a half. It hovered before her sensor-enhanced eyes, her vision filtered through a range of input sensors that she had long been accustomed to using.

The satellite was of a very traditional design, using a pair of rectangular antennas and operant under the assumption that he ground stations had the power to reach a small rectenna in geosynchronus orbit, and the sensitivity to hear the output of the same. Her internal analysis of the satellite at this range indicated that it once had a nuclear power source along with the array of solar collectors that covered the entire surface of the satellite.

She registered that that was an assumption. Radar 'slices' of the insides showed a large gap, as if nuclear fuel had runaway and melted the insides. But there as no radiation coming from the satellite, no evidence of power fluctuations. "It's cold. Bring in the first half of the sphere."

Behind her, three members of her EVA team floated towards the satellite, a band of what appeared to be wires nearly 20 meters in diameters in their hands. "How are we doing on velocities?" she asked Rhonda.

"Almost perfect. I could easily handle the rest without influencing the satellite unduly. And it's a lot easier then trying to make the Ille Pendoro do this!"

"Yeah," Heely agreed. The debate had gone on for almost ten minutes about bringing the satellite into the ship. It could have been done, but the assessment had finally concluded that an orbital lab would have been safer and more efficient to set up.

The three people responsible for placing the ring raised thumbs up in confirmation, then one floated back while two took up opposite sides of the ring. "Ready for expansion, sir."

"Do it," Heely said. She watched as the two ensigns, volunteers, activated the small mounting circles along the band, making the multiple strands of curved wire expand, rotating about a common access until they defined a ball around the satellite.

Heely directed the other two members of the EVA team to fit the ball with the multi-layer cloth external shell that would inflate to provide a shirt-sleeve environment for the satellite investigation team. The two halves of the ball overlapped along the initial band, and after about a half-hour of fitting the "cloth," the engineering team announced that it was ready to fit the access module, a box that had life-support, power, and emergency airlock access.

Flexible structures in space was an old technology. Terra, as far back as their late 20th century, when they had nothing but chemical rockets and had ventured only as far as their local moon, experimented with inflatable structures for medium-scale, temporary orbital or lunar installations as well as emergency shelters that could be folded up and stored away. These had used nothing more than the same protective "cloths" used in their EVA suits.

The evolution of programmed-death biological engineering, followed by solid, artificial ergasynthesis and finally fully realized nanotechnology had led to the next-stage evolution of microengineering and electromagnetic matrixed cloth, the stuff of Stark and the 'muscle' of hardshell powered armor like Shirow. Each 'cell' of the matrix, smaller slightly then a standard biological cell, attracted or repulsed its neighbor by controlling the flow of electrons across its surface. The instructions for doing so flowed over the surface of the cloth by mild changes in the overall electrical field, both in frequency and in amplitude depending on the application. "Flat" cloth was made up of multiple layers of hexagonal cells and could pull along any active axis of the cell. Some versions of flatcloth used deforming cells, and these were the kinds most often used in armor, because although their range of contraction was smaller, their maximum strength was the greatest available. Three-dimensional cloths were available, but they were weaker and were generally used only for artistic or light-duty robotics applications.

Pre-fab two-dimensional cloths such as the one they were using now were a great boon to orbital research. Although not as useful as something made of clear polyceramics, there was something to be said for a 1400 cubic meter structure that folded into a two by three meter box, and that could be constructed around the subject of investigation.

And what was currently a sphere could be broken into two halves, laid with a rigid, flat sheet of powered cloth and made into surface domes for uncomfortable environments.

"What's it look like in there, ensign?" she asked the one volunteer she had left inside the ball.

"Satellite is still hovering dead center, sir," the report came back in her ears. "Be nice if I had some light to work with."

"Your wish is my command," she said, touching a switch. The silvered ball expanded slightly, becoming rigid. "How's that?"

"Good, sir. No change from the satellite."

"I'm going to give you an atmosphere, ensign. Starting." She pressed another button on the command console. The linear gauge registered the increase in pressure inside until it reached the same pressure that was maintained inside the typical starship. "Any change?"

"No sir. I'm surprised; I would have thought some components would have responded poorly to a change in atmosphere."

"It's likely that the satellite was assembled on the ground," Heely pointed out.

"Yes sir."

"I'm coming in to join you." She floated towards the power module. On the outside of the power module was a SDisk that led inside. She touched it, waited for the blink, then found herself inside the sphere. "Rhonda, are we connected to the ship?"

"Yes we are," the AI replied. The SDisk inside turned green, indicating that it was now part of the Ille Pendoro SDisk network.

"Good job, engineering. Could the Satellite Autopsy Team please join us?"

"It's a mess," Lieutenant Heely was saying four hours later. "When compared to the weather patterns we're reading from the orbital track, I'd say this thing has been here between nine hundred twenty and nine hundred seventy years. The one good thing about the satellite is that it was nuclear powered, and we're guessing at what the original status of the nuclear fuel rod was, but we might be able to get a more accurate estimate of the satellite's age."

"Lieutenant," Commander Fezzik said when it was obvious Heely had concluded her report, "You're working on the basis that the failure of the nuclear core was caused by accident. Have you considered hostile action?"

"I don't understand?"

Cafran leaned forward. "I see what she's saying," he said. "Markov, we're not particularly used to thinking in warlike terms. But, what if the hardware that regulated their generators was destroyed by hostile EMP? Wouldn't trace radiation from materials in the path of the melting core give you a solid indication, almost to the minute, of when the EMP occurred? And if so, wouldn't that tell us at least to the day when the war happened? First thing they'd want to do is destroy each other's orbital monitoring facilities, right?"

"I hadn't thought of that," Heely said, scribbling madly on the PADD in front of her. "I'll get on it immediately."

"In the mean time," Lieutenant Miroh was saying, "I have a surprise. Fezzik, you're going down to the surface."

"I am?"

"She is?" Cafran asked, surprised.

"Your pardon, Captain," Miroh, the head of the Sensors and the ship's chief planetologist, continued. "I didn't mean to usurp your authority, but it is my understanding that Commander Fezzik would like to exercise her skills as a technological archaeologist on the surface of this world, and I believe the perfect opportunity for her to do so has come up. We are detecting a power source on the planet's surface."

The room erupted in cries of "What?" Cafran pounded on the table to regain control. "Hold it! Miroh, explain."

"About an hour ago I decided to check the surface for the possibility of military traffic or intelligence. I found evidence not of a military installation necessarily, but I did find sufficient fast neutrinos to point to a fusion power source."

"Miroh," Heely said, "There's no evidence that these people had controlled fusion. The power source in the satellite is very much a slow fission process."

"That's what the numbers point to. In fact, the output characteristics is surprisingly close to that of early Pendor fusion plants."

Fezzik examined her PADD closely. "I think it's closer to some Terran models. Maybe a second-generation Morrow station plant."

"In any event," Miroh continued, "We're looking at an approximately 30 kilowatt installation. The locale is a sub-arctic region within about 20 kilometers of what looks to have been a major metropolitan seaport. It was apparently a military target. There's not much left."

"Is there any surface construction at the site?" Fezzik's voice was charged with curiosity.

"Extensive," Miroh said. "The layout of the visible grounds is quite interesting and apparently somewhat haphazard. We haven't been able to guess the logic behind the layout, and if we are going to be sending a team down to investigate, I would like that particular mystery to be investigated as well."

"You'll get your chance, Miroh," Cafran said. "Okay, we have our jobs. Doc, sorry, but..."

The Lutra drummed her fingers on the tabletop. "Like I said, I don't want excitement right now. It's nearly the end of the tour."

Cafran nodded. "Okay. Miroh, you're to finish up an assessment, including a three-angle neutrino scan, of the site. Fezzik, draw up an engineering and investigation team. Parry, two pilots for a SDisk shuttle first thing in the morning. Heely, I want the assessment of that satellite completed for Fezzik's team." He glanced over at Glass. "Sorry, Mandy. Looks like you're out of luck. That place is sterile as space."

"'S okay, Captain," she said. "If we can find traces down there I'll be happy.

The Ritacha War: Breakthrough
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is copyright © March 29, 1994 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.