Peaceful silence filled the clean, dimly lit hallways of Phoenix. Well past midnight, Kurt took a late night stroll. Sleep had become a thing he needed less and less. Not that it had become elusive, but apparently he needed less hours of sleep.

Once his shift in the control centre was over, he had time for himself. Spending the rest of the day with Leopold was something he hadn’t done in some time, as the lad was spending his spare time with Tracy.

Young love.

Musing on the blessings and curses of youth, Kurt found himself entering the garden on the deck beneath the bridge.

In stark contrast to the ring sections, the hallways, rooms and gardens on the spearhead of Phoenix were more accomodating to martian humans, as they were taller than their terran ancestors. Rings and engineering had been built fully automated, following blueprints used for all of the Ark-class ships. No one bumped his head, or had to bow his head all the while, but the ceiling was hanging uncomfortably low.

Except in the new segment.

Weather in the garden simulated a lush summer night, Kurt marched a few paces, found a bench and sat down.

When he first noticed it, he began to worry, but asking a physician cleared it up. He gained muscle mass. Gravity on the Phoenix was dialed up, gently and barely noticeable, but it was dialed up to match that of Earth eventually.

Almost the same amount of gravity as on RV-p296, or their current destination, Ericsson.

 

A stop along the way to the colony, Ericsson had played a small role in the exodus of the Orion-class ships, for stocking up their supplies in minerals. Phoenix had no need for the goods that could be mined on Ericsson. Instead their mission was one of exploration.

“Can’t sleep?” Regina sat down next to him. “I seem to need less sleep than I used to.” Delighted to see her, he calmly turned to her with a mild smile on his lips. “What drives you here?”

“I can’t sleep.” She returned the smile.

“Good, er, I mean, that’s bad. We have a big day ahead of us.” Phoenix had entered orbit around Ericsson, stationary above the landing site of Explorer’s ill fated ground mission. A concentrated beam of energy was shot down to power up the equipment left behind.

The drones and probes needed to clear a landing site for the spearhead. This was as good a first landing site as any, if problems arose they just needed to turn the ship around and head back to Mars. With their engine capacity it was only a two month journey.

“You’re just happy to see me.” Regina laughed. “You’re right, I am.” He leaned his head on his hand, resting against the back of the bench.

After his wife Maya had left with the DEHumans, he was heartbroken, but as she was not going to come back, he had filed for divorce, and gotten the approval of senate and president. Something about the General had reignited a fire in his heart.

“We should get to bed.” Blushing Regina cleared her throat. “I mean, we need to rest, we should go to our separate beds.”

Reaching for her hand Kurt calmed her down. “I know exactly what you meant, General.” Winking he got up, pulling her with him. “Since I do not have the luxury of having a quarter on the spearhead, would you perhaps be interested in walking to the tube with me?” Although very well knowing that her quarters were near the closest tube access, he still felt the queasy sensation of butterflies in his stomach.

“Kindly, Doctor.”

 

Again feeling queasy Kurt clenched the armrests of his chair. This time however it was not the joyful queasiness of romance that made him jittery, but nervousness over the separation.

“Separation will commence in five,” Corporal Maria Jose Fernández announced from the bridge, her soothing voice not calming Kurt down in the least.

Perhaps it was a mistake to join the landing party? “Four.” What if there was an accident? Leopold would become an orphan! “Three.”

What if there was a problem with Phoenix’s antimatter reactor? “Two.” It was too late to say he didn’t want to, was it? “One.” It turned silent in the control centre, everyone held their breath.

“Separation!” Most likely there was a sound in the rear parts of the detaching spearhead, but in the control centre silence prevailed.

“Phoenix lander has successfully detached from mother ship! Landing sequence commencing.” A short moment of relief washed over Kurt, apparently over the others as well, as they released a joyous sigh, some even a shout of success.

But the moment lasted only shortly.

Landing procedures followed. After having let go of his armrests, Kurt again grabbed for them. The part of the journey he feared the most. It’ll get easier with the second landing. He promised himself.

Looking at a picture on his screen. Leopold. Driving force behind his scientific endeavours, his son.

The betterment of mankind, so that there would be much more opportunity for him, an easier and worthier life.

A soft thud woke Kurt from his thoughts, with a hint of terror he looked around. Was that turbulence? “Phoenix has successfully landed on Ericsson!”

Shouts of joy and loud applause arose around Kurt, he too began to clap. Phoenix’s first successful landing.

“As soon as all system have checked out, let’s turn off the artificial gravity.” Kurt then turned to Linus.

 

Regina got up from out of her chair. The descend had been a gentle breeze. But when Phoenix pointed towards the surface of Ericsson she, as well as everyone else, felt heavily reminded of their home, Mars. Seemingly featureless, black, icy planet. Only as they neared the surface did the guiding lights of the landing site come to life.

Riding in on beams of light the Phoenix gently sat down on the ground. To avoid any reactions between the condensed, and therefore concentrated, atmosphere and their engines during take off or landing the crew had instructed the revived drones on the planet to clear the landing site of any snow.

What would mankind’s fate look like if this had happened to earth, not Mars? Rolling that question around her mind Regina had watched the landing, more like a movie than real life. She was not in control, at all. It was the navigators who steered the ship.

The Orion-class ships would have left the blue planet, many more people than had evacuated to Mars, would’ve survived beneath the earth’s surface. Perhaps a whole fleet of Phoenix-class ships would now be on their way to greener pastures. Looking at the viewscreen displaying the barren blackness behind the artificial lights of the guiding systems, Regina shook her head. In another reality perhaps. But we’re here. “Status?”

“All systems in the green, we could lift off right now if we wanted to.” Navigator, Kohaku Toryama smiled. “All stations report good to go, only one injury, a panic attack on deck three. Nothing serious.” Maria too was smiling.

Everyone had that victorious, smug grin on their lips.

“Good, now get to work.” Regina resisted the urge to follow them with the smiling. When exactly had she begun to smile?

She always had been smiling, with her few friends and family. But not subordinates. Ascending through the ranks in Mars’ security force, she had not jested or laughed with colleagues or subordinates.

Once she had become involved with the Phoenix project, she had become even less of a soft person. Driven to get the ship airborne, preferably under her command, she took no risks, no detours.

Only once it neared readiness did she tone down her hard image. Only once it had entered orbit, had she allowed herself to be seen as a fellow human being, not the general. Or was it earlier?

Ever since she had become involved with Kurt she had begun to soften. Something about the man branded as a borderline mad scientist, touched something deep inside her.

“You made me soft.” Not sure what was going on, Kurt stopped in the middle of the hallway. “Hello to you too, general. Congratulations on Phoenix’s first successful landing!” Again a smile.

Sighing and shaking her head Regina let her shoulders sink. “Hello. Thanks, you too.” Allowing herself to finally smile as well, was not as hard as she thought. “It’s complicated.” She pinched her nose at the base upon his inquiring look.

Stammering around she explained what had been going through her mind, causing his smile to broaden with every moment.

“It’s alright to be a human being, even and especially to your subordinates. True, they need a leader in times of crisis that seems unfazed by tragedy, so they can look up to said leader, but we are not in times of crisis. Be yourself, General, and allow your humanity to show.” He leaned close, kissed her on the cheek.

“I’ll be expecting a dinner date, Regina Marston. How about tonight?” Involuntarily blushing she nodded, bit her lower lip. “I’ll be picking you up at 1800, if that is alright with your schedule?” Again she just nodded, afraid to be stammering again if she spoke.

Another of her perks she had to overcome, showing again now.

 

After all systems checks had been completed Regina returned to the bridge. She could’ve waited for it to be complete on the bridge, but the short walk and talk with Kurt had eased her mind. “Alright, inform Doctor Yates, his team has a go, and assemble a team to enter the mines.” Stopping in front of Corporal Fernández Regina paused. “Corporal, how would you feel about going with Doctor Yates?”

“To the city? It,” the woman paused, nervously she fidgeted with her uniform, “would be an honor.” Squinting at her, Regina sensed hesitation.

“You don’t need to go, it’s a volunteer mission.”

Again nervous fidgeting. “It would look great on my record, wouldn’t it?”

A knowing smile appeared on Regina’s lips. “It would look marvellous on your record, but if you have objections, it won’t be noted on your record.”

The young woman was battling her inner demons as it seemed, she stood up with a sigh. “I’ll go, General.” Ordering her to report to flyer bay one Regina was satisfied. That young woman had the same struggles she once had, and perhaps would one day end up like herself. On top of the food chain, with similar doubts.

 

Phoenix’s spearhead lander was equipped with two smaller crafts that would detach from its topside, two additional crafts were located on the underside, at the time unusable, since the ground was in the way of them taking off.

Ignoring her nervousness, taking solace in the fact that they could not be bothered by turbulence, Maria reported to the flyer bay, was rushed inside, as the Doctor and his team were already aboard.

Quickly she sat down in the assigned seat and buckled up, as the engines already started, sending soft vibrations through the flyer.

After a mere half an hour of flight, they touched down on a large square, outside of what the Explorer crew had identified as a subway entrance.

Following the example set by the rest of the team, Maria got into a space suit, and then waited at the airlock.

Leaders of the expedition were Doctor Yates and Colonel Henderson. The latter carried a relay device and ordered Maria to take the batterypack for the already present one with her. It had been designed to fit the relay already in place, left by the probe the temporarily stranded Explorer crew had sent in.

In case they couldn’t power it up Henderson had his replacement. Yates carried a suitcase with some tools he had tested and innovated at the Harpy ship excavation on Mars. He was the closest thing to an archaeologist they had.

Other team members carried some equipment, like the signal enhancers for the relay stations, since the old ones had run out of power, recharging them over the air would take longer than they intended to stay.

Next to the entrance to the subway system were a few age old carcasses, no one stopped to examine them.

Somehow Maria had the urge to, but lacked any know how to actually determine cause of death, or anything other than that they were indeed aliens. “Attempting connection to power supply.” Maria opened the briefcase and took out the car battery sized power supply for the transmitter. There were wires leading to a connector, although she was not the most agile with the thick and heavy gloves on her hands, the relay was easy to open.

Like specifications had told, there was an inlet for the plug.

A few dim LEDs came to life, for a fraction of a momemt there was a weird sound on the Radio, but then it returned to normal.

“It’s on. Negotiating connection with the flyer.” A small screen in the suitcase was connected wirelessly with the transmitter. “We’re in. Good thing these things came with no security what so ever.”

“Who should hack into them? The natives with no notion what a computer is, let alone one from another world?” From his voice Maria deduced that Henderson was not all too happy to be here either.

“Alright, in we go.” Yates sounded exited, way more exited than Maria could even feign. Following the Colonel, who went in second, she hoped for nothing gruesome to be found.

 

As the video and picture evidence from several generations ago already depicted, the hallways and platforms were littered with garbage. Some of which probably was excrement. Since the probe had went through the tunnels, nothing had changed, suggesting that there was either no indigenous Ericsson alive in these tunnels, or none had bothered to go to the higher lying levels.

“There are the scribblings.” After an hour they had reached the point where the stranded had turned the drone around and aborted further exploration of the shelters. “Translation of these texts is available, if you’re curious.” Enthusiastic as from the beginning, Yates shone his light on the scribblings on the walls. They stretched for some extent.

He fidgeted with his equipment, took out a tablet, bigger than the usual ones, perfect for handling in clunky gloves. With it he scanned the text, waited a few seconds, and read the translation. “What’s it say?” Henderson seemed impatient.

His mission directive was not find alien writing, but to evaluate any potential threat. Find out if they still lived, and if so, whether they posed any danger to them and the equipment.

“I think it is a religious text. The voices have spoken, the end is upon us. Listen to hear our plea.” Yates turned to the Colonel.

“Well, I don’t hear a thing, and my outside mic is functioning perfectly normal.” Turning to head on further in he took one step.

“What if it isn’t religious, but literal?” Maria’s words stopped him. “Not like they are still talking or anything, but what if there is a recording of some sorts hidden here?”

Disgruntled Henderson let out a sigh. Of course, they couldn’t just say ‘Audio recording here.’

“How do you intend to find it, Corporal? If your theory is sound.” Henderson paused, snickering. “No pun intended.”

Maria set down her suitcase, stepped closer to the wall. Clumsily she unhooked the microphone from her suit, glad it was not built in, but on a cord. With one hand she held it against the wall, began knocking on it.

Below the writing she heard a hollow ring to her knocks. Triumphantly smiling she turned around, of course, no one saw that smug smile of hers. “It’s hollow, right here.”

Her light passed through the helmet of Doctor Yates as he came close himself, she saw his excitement for a brief moment.

He followed her example, and confirmed her find. From his toolkit he now produced a small hammer. Although not an expert in archeology, he came prepared.

Carefully he began hammering at the wall, chipping a hole in it.

 

Gradually the lights in the hallways dimmed, evening approached. Kurt’s attention was only for the tablet in his hands. Deep scans of the planet showed that it still had a hot interior, thanks to its size, it was even hotter than Mars, perfect for their plans.

A glance at the time index on his tablet made Kurt hurry. After stopoing shortly in his quarters to freshen up he went to Regina’s quarters.

Anxiously, nervous like a teenager picking up his date, he rang the door, quickly checking his looks in the reflective surface of his tablet.

Why did he bring this along? To amuse his date?

Grumbling he put it in his pocket again, only to realise that no one had answered the door.

Confused he checked the door sign, he was at the right place.

Again he rang the door.

Waiting for a date to come to the door was an agonising task, he found. The uncertainty, the eagerness, the nervousness. It all made the span of a minute seem more like an hour. After what felt like five hours he checked the time.

Ten minutes had already passed since his arrival. Alright, let’s give her a third ring.

Another five minutes passed with no answer.

Somewhat disappointed he slowly took out his tablet. “Locate General Marston.”

The display showed Regina to be on the bridge. Intrigued he raised an eyebrow, went on his way to the bridge.

 

“, do you have any idea what that thing is?” Regina spoke into the room, obviously talking over the radio.

“It seems to be an audio recording. Crude, but effective and durable, General. The cylinder has grooves on it, and engraved soundwaves. Like an old, if not ancient, recording method in our own history.” Slowly Kurt walked into the room, Regina did not notice him as he entered from behind her. The voice on the other end of the communication line belonged to Doctor Yates, Kurt recognised him from the Harpy excavation.

“Did you have any luck in playing it?”

“Negative, the device for playback is there, but with the thin atmosphere in the tunnel we had no success in hearing a god damn thing. We’re carefully moving both the cylinder and the playback device to the flyer. Doctor Yates, over.”

“Understood. General Marston, over.” A broad smiling expression on her face she turned to her first officer. “Rich, what time is it?”

“Twenty past.” Kurt finally made his presence known. Startled Regina turned with her seat around. Her expression was a mix of shock and pleasant surprise. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry.” Jumping from her seat she apologised. “I didn’t mean to,” she sought the right word, obviously still having a problem in showing her humanity.

“miss our appointment? Well, gladly I have a flexible schedule.” Finally glad to have his tablet with him he pulled it out. “We can go over the scans here and now if you wish?”

“No!” Quickly Regina rushed to the door. “Your report about the, uhm, scans, in the briefing room.” She stuttered, leaving the bridge. “In five minutes!” She yelled, hurrying away.

Kurt worked hard not to laugh. As did the officers on the bridge.

Everyone instantly knew that the report thing was just a front for their date. Only after the door closed behind Regina did Kurt hear a few snickers and giggles, himself also smiling amused. “Have nice evening, Doctor.” Rich Baumann winked, as Kurt also walked to the door. Thanking him with a short nod Kurt walked through the door.

 

Dinner with the General was dominated by her news about the cylinder, and the playback device found. Somehow Kurt was a little disappointed. Conversing about work at the dinner table was not his idea of a date. But it was fitting of Regina.

“Sounds like a simple cylinder phonograph, once inside an atmosphere capable of transporting soundwaves we’ll be able to hear what they recorded.” He agreed with the assessment of Doctor Yates.

“How was your day?” Stunned by surprise Kurt paused at the question. “It was a fine day, but made better by you.” He displayed an infectious, warm smile. “Yours?”

Blushing, Regina bowed her head, causing a loose strain of her hair to fall in her face. “Likewise a fine day, met with the perfect finale. So far.”

They sat in the briefing room, just as she had announced on the bridge, in case anyone sought them, they’d find them there, not in her or his quarters. “I didn’t meant to be late for our date, nor did I mean for it to take place here.” She apologised again.

“You are the general of this ship, I know that your work will interfere with your private life. No need to apologise. About the location, we can change that.” Taking out his tablet he winked.

The screens on the walls flickered to life, displayed a dense forest, a few crickets chirped from the speakers. “There, we are in a nice forest, out on a romantic evening walk.”

“Doctor Braun, if I wouldn’t know any better, I’d say you’re trying to seduce me.”

“Perhaps I am trying to, perhaps I just want to be romantic.”

Snickering Regina picked up a piece of food on her fork. “With the stone cold General? Romantic? You surprise me Doctor Braun.”

Also snickering Kurt looked into Regina’s blue eyes. “Here you sit, dining with the borderline mad scientist. Better believe it, general.”

A moment of silence passed, without a word Regina got up, leaned over the table and kissed Kurt. “You do me good. Keep doing me good.”

“If you keep me from derailing, which you do.” A feat only one other woman had ever achieved. Normally his work kept him from going mad. But there was not much of work for his mind to be occupied with on the Phoenix. “We could hack into the computer and feign our presence in here.” Regina suggested, climbing over the table.

“I don’t think the General would like that.”

“I have it on good authority that she’ll make an exception.”

 

“Drills are in place.” Linus stated dryly. “Begin.” Kurt did not check. Tuovinen was a good man, a brilliant scientist and engineer. He knew what he was doing.

On the display before him the scanners showed the drills beginning to descend through the rock below the mine. They would continue to descend until they had reached a depth hot enough to extraxt the heat for their purposes.

Energy requirements for the fully automated Ericsson quantum entanglement communication relay center were not that much. At the same time the base on Ericsson should be expanded, mining operations should be conducted in other parts of the planet, an observatory was to be constructed.

All fully automatic.

Those tasks required more energy, and the geothermal heat was the best way to keep that requirement sated.

 

Not explicitly tired, his requirements for sleep had reduced, but a little fatigued, Kurt forced himself to observe the progress on the screen.

However, his mind always seemed to drift off. To Regina Marston, General of the Phoenix. And apparently his girlfriend.

 

“How was your, report, doing yesterday?” Sharp as ever to notice what was going on Leopold asked the poignant question during their daily video conversation. “It went well. Very well. Did you hear that a Phonograph had been found?” The crew from the Flyer had been back, but the machine supposed to play the cylinder was broken, and scanning the cylinder was still underway.

“Yes, tell me more about the report.” Grumbling Kurt inched around in his seat. “There is not much to tell.” To you, young man. “We are currently drilling, for the geothermal reserves.”

Most of all Kurt did not want to talk about the previous evening, as he took the call at his desk, where half the people in the control centre could hear him. Finally giving in to his father’s insistence not to talk about the previous evening, Leopold nodded, asking about the estimated time left for the drilling operations.

“All the equipment is already installed, all that is left is the heat, I’d say in twelve hours.” That was of course only once they reached the depths required to utilise the geothermal heat of Ericsson, not the time when the reactor was operational. But once the required depths had been reached automated systems were activated and the rest of the construction was completed while Phoenix was on her way. “Great. So tomorrow you’ll be back?”

“Yes.” Annoyed by his son’s tone of voice, implying that there would be questions about Kurt and the General, Kurt confirmed, right before ending the call.

 

Attentively listening Regina had sat down in the conference room, her first officer, and a few scientists attended, as well as the team that had discovered the phonograph, while the digital scan of the recording was played.

The sounds reminded her more of shrieks, but she heard the structure in them. After a while there was a melody to the shrieks.

“Some tune, huh?” Yates jested, over the sounds, was rewarded with a few snickers from around the room.

After fifteen minutes the show was over.

“Any thoughts?” Regina felt a little relieved. After five minutes the sounds had begun to strain her ears.

“I wouldn’t want to listen to a long speech by them, General.” Yates again tried to be funny, was silenced by Regina’s stern gaze. “We have their written language decoded, but no idea what sounds the words make, it might take a while.”

Turning her attention to Corporal Fernández, Regina hoped to hear better news from her. “Any ideas, Corporal?”

Raising her eyebrows Maria touched the controls to the recording again. She played back the first few shrieks. “I think the first few seconds relate to the message on the wall. They have the same rhythm to them as these words. ‘The voices have spoken, the end is upon us. Listen to hear our plea.'” For a moment the entirety of the room looked at Maria.

“Work with that assumption, and see if you can decode any of it.” Regina sat up straight before anyone else could interject, there was already a ridiculing expression on Doctor Yates’ face, which now changed into an offended one, but he kept quiet. After all it was an order from the General.

Regina felt a slight vibration in her pocket, took out the glasses. Unlike martian colonists, the Phoenix crew had caught up to the Orion-class ships in convenience levels.

 

“Drilling is complete. We are good to go.” With a smile on his face Kurt reported to an empty screen, fully aware that Regina could see him.

Anxiety filled his thoughts. Finally they would get off the surface of Ericsson, back to space and on their journey to RV-p296.

Over the course of the upcoming years he would need to refine work on the engines. There was still a lot of potential. Within a few days the linkers had visited Mars, they would lumber on for four years to cover the same distance.

At least it wouldn’t take them three generations to reach their destination.

 

Breaking away from the surface was easier than Kurt had feared. But the landing unit had significantly less mass to haul than the entire Phoenix, even though Ericsson’s gravity was higher than Mars’.

After a short while the landing unit began the maneuvers to dock with the Phoenix, completing those without any incident.

For a moment Kurt felt that there ought to be a problem, everything was going too smoothly. He chased that thought away, as he did not want to think what the consequences might be if they had locked the docking clamps wrong, or not at all. The kind of acceleration, and the nature of their propulsion, could vaporise the lander, damage the rear to a point of spelling doom for it too.

 

An hour and fourty two minutes after they left the surface Kurt stepped into his quarters on the alpha ring. “Home, sweet home.” He mumbled looking around the chaos his son had created in the few days of his absence. Somehow he longed for the small, but tidy, quarters with the bunkbed on the spearhead.

“Prepare for drive engagement in fifteen minutes.” Linus announced over the shipe wide intercom. Deciding his place was in the control centre, Kurt left the chaos that was his quarters. Perhaps it was time he and Regona talked about a small room for the lad. It would make dating the General easier too, if they could decide on a whim where to go.

 

“Attention, all personnel, this is General Marston speaking. Prepare for full engagement of the drive. These past few days have marked another human milestone, set by the remarkable crew of the Phoenix. Not only has this ship brought humankind into the antimatter age, but now It also laid the foundation for the QEC, or Quantum Entanglement Communication, array, and the Ericsson RnD laboratories. Over the course of the next months and years the facilities will be built by fully automated drones. Mars has great plans for Ericsson, and we enabled them. Congratulations to all of you. Now we will set course for RV-p296, I’m confident that we will not need to stop along the way. Marston out.”

Advertisements