The Forge Region
Planet VI – Moon 1
Station: Sisters of EVE Bureau
“What is wrong with you?” Cornelias asked, slamming a palm down on the desk in front of him. His subordinate, Wilik Horis Tols jerked up from having rested his head on a stack of reports. His densely cluttered desk was a disaster zone, and the blow rattled the precarious stacks around him. They strained, almost in slow motion, to upend themselves, mounds of unending work toppling in all directions. Wilik breathed a sigh of relief when they settled without falling.
“I’m on my lunch break, sir,” Wilik explained in a mild voice. “I thought a small nap on my time would make me more productive this afternoon. For the good of the corporation.”
Cornelias swiped his wrist device and a holographic projection appeared with all of his staff’s schedules available for perusal. He pulled up Wilik and eyed it carefully. Satisfied he shut it down. “Quite right,” he offered reluctantly. “I received a request from the top brass on an old case. I want you to rummage through your, um, work load and bring it over for discussion. I’ll send the details.”
“No problem. I will be on top of it.”
“Very good,” Cornelias said as he walked out.
Wilik, a corporate, high level security agent, sat back in his ergonomic chair and ran his hands through his short brown hair and sighed in frustration. He looked around his large office with bleary eyes at the tablets, files, and other work related items. Picking up his metallic cup from the warmer, he took a long drink from his strong coffee. Smacking his lips a bit, be looked toward a wall holo display when the message arrived from Cornelias.
He perked up an eyebrow opening it, thinking it a little odd there was sudden interest about an old, cold case. Sliding the details from the big screen over to his personal holo device, he looked it over. Not much to go on. A case number, a date, and the name of the system. “Oh, so informative. And on top of it all, Anoikis,” he complained sarcastically. Then he remembered the case. Clearing his throat, an uncomfortable feeling bloomed in his chest.
Opening the case file from his archive, the corporate logo appeared. Wilik knew the graphic designer who created the new fancy version. He smiled thinking about their discussion during that process and how Dorvin wanted to include a phallic flair. It did not work out quite like Dorvin thought, and he almost lost his job. A last minute intervention, due to his outstanding backup design, luckily got him busted down to junior pay for six months.
The name of their organization appeared below the logo, Pinnacle Star Corporation. Following procedure, the system scanned him and his finger prints. “Access, Agent Tols. Code, Theta two seven hundred,” he said.
“Biosecurity, voice print, and identification code confirmed,” the corporate AI system responded. “Please note this file has been reclassified to level eight clearance.”
“Odd. Proceed,” Wilik said. The file opened, and he began his analysis.
* * * * *
Cornelias flopped back in his chair throwing up his arms in utter bafflement. “Wilik, what were you thinking?” he bellowed.
“Um, that the complete loss of communication with J103951 did not justify allocating further resources, assets, and time into a full, immediate investigation. If they could respond, they would. I figured it was only a matter of time. Damn it, Cornelias, do you know how hard it would be to attempt to reestablish access from our side? The system is in Anoikis!
“How long would our pilots have to wander around in whiskey space to even find it? There may be an infinite number of star systems for all we know connected to that labyrinth!” Wilik caught himself getting louder as he spoke, his temper flaring dangerously. He decided to close his mouth. Talking to his boss required more careful, tempered responses.
Cornelias ground his teeth as he stood up from his chair. “So you bury the damn investigation?” he yelled.
Wilik turned toward the huge window, crossed his arms, and walked over to it looking out into the vastness of space. Giving him a few seconds to regroup.
“Well?” Cornelias demanded.
Sighing heavily, Wilik faced his boss. “I didn’t bury the investigation. It got put aside for a time. The acute danger and tenuous access to an Anoikis system, I just figured our team would eventually be able to make contact. Reestablish a connection. If they were able to. No telling what may have happened.”
“Its been way too long!” Cornelias stormed. “I know you tend to be a procrastinator, but this is the first time that I have discovered out right lazy incompetence.” He jabbed a finger at Wilik emphasizing his points. Then he started slamming a heavy hand on to his desk. “I am fit to be tied! How many put aside investigations will I find if I have a team go through that unbelievably unorganized morass of files in your office!”
Wilik shook his head insulted, getting angry once more. “I know every case assigned to me. I know exactly where each one stands, and I know how long they have been open. This is simply my oldest case, boss. I know. I know. I made a mistake. I just don’t know what could have been done.”
“Then you should have come to me!” Cornelias thundered. “You should have come in here and talked to me about it. Not just put it aside. That was your mistake!”
The two men stared at one another for numerous seconds, red faced, and deeply displeased. Wilik felt a urge to punch him in the face, a scrap of guilt, and uncertainty concerning where he stood. Running a hand along his scruffy jaw line, he thought about the times he considered doing something more with the case. The door to the office cracked open and Nista stuck her head inside, Cornelias’ secretary.
“Not right now!” he yelled, waving her away. Her eyes got real big, glanced at Wilik with sympathy, and quietly closed the door. “Do you realize how deep in the shit we are on this?”
Wilik nodded his head feeling terrible for a variety of reasons. “I’m fucked.”
Cornelias sighed heavily. “You’re not the only one. We’ve been called to a meeting with the security directorate this afternoon. Go back to your desk. Prepare the information we have for review.”
* * * * *
The meeting room was intimidatingly large. Ten members of the security directorate sat at one end on a slightly raised platform. The other portion of the table extended perpendicular from there and could sit another twenty. Light flowed down from the inset lighting above like a waterfall, and shadows encircled them all to each side.
Additional seating outside the lit area was full of various onlookers. Wilik could not identify anyone off the top of his head. He was sure there were people from other divisions as well as high level executives looking down from the darkened windows above. The more he noticed, the more nervous he felt. Wilik and Cornelias sat alone on one side of the table at a distance from the platform. His own director, Shanen Bilks, sat up there looking displeased.
When the Chief of Security Tulend Ossigora entered, the low discussions around the room ended immediately. He walked over and took his seat slipping on a pair of half spectacles. His suit was crisp and neat. Flipping open the file in front of him he read the top sheet. “Proceed,” he ordered when finished.
Director Bilks nodded. “Yes, sir.” She appeared to glare at down at her two subordinates. “Supervising Agent Cornelias Pinama, please.”
Cornelias cleared his throat and stood up. He was solid in spirit and dressed for the occasion. The man actually looked relaxed and presented himself with confidence. Adjusting his jacket, he began. “Good afternoon. We have reviewed the existing case once more, and Agent Tols is prepared to present a briefing.”
Cornelias sat down as Wilik reluctantly stood. Still dressed in his standard daily attire of a white business shirt and gray slacks, he was about to walk to the presentation station to begin when he was interrupted.
“Agent Tols, we have all read the case file and initial reports. I have decided to defer the review at this time,” Chief Ossigora said.
Wilik cringed inside, ready for the inevitable accusations of laziness, incompetence, and yelling to follow. He would probably be fired, Cornelias berated and demoted, and Director Bilks would be disciplined too for her inability to sniff out the stench of complacency under her authority. He just wished he would get a chance to defend his reasoning and decisions.
Chief Ossigora paused a moment before continuing, shuffling through the papers in front of him. Then he returned his gaze to Wilik. “Agent, I have come to agree with your very detailed, logical analysis, and conclusions on this case. At the time, there was not a clear way forward due to our loss of access to Anoikis system J103951.”
Bilks, Cornelias, and Wilik all appeared visibly relieved by his words. The latter nodded in recognition, Cornelias sat back in his chair rubbing his face, and Shanen looked at her people without an unpleasant stare. Though something jumped out at Agent Tols. “At the time?” Wiliks asked.
“Yes, at the time,” Chief Ossigora answered. “This case has been reclassified to level eight clearance and this meeting called because new information has been discovered.” Glancing over to his left, he motioned to one of the other directors. Wilik slowly sat down in his seat.
The Recon director, Nun Kallis, activated the view screen from his position and an image appeared from ceiling to floor. A corporate citadel, one of the first to be deployed by the Pinnacle Star team came into view. It was dead in space, the hull ruptured and blackened in numerous locations. A lot of debris dotted the space around it.
Kallis’ deep voice imparted the emotion they all felt as he spoke. “A terrible tragedy. These images were captured by a third party capsuleer two days ago. She happened to be familiar with our corporation, so in exchange for payment, she provided this data and sent us the location of an entry point. The wormhole is stable for now, so we sent in a scout ship.”
Other images slowly transitioned across the screen. Multiple moon bases with a variety of functions, and numerous planet side colony infrastructure appeared, all destroyed. “The tremendous loss of life is incalculable. Staggering. Thousands of our coworkers and friends,” Kallis said.
“Why didn’t we receive any warnings or notices, Director Kallis?” Chief Ossigora questioned.
“A question I don’t have an answer to at this time,” Kallis answered. “As you are all aware, we have only recently opened a capsuleer division within the corporation. A measure that I pushed for a long time. This is the exact type of scenario where information could have been relayed quickly in an dire situation. We should have never entered Anoikis without capsuleers as part of that equation.”
“Thank you, Director Kallis, for that unnecessary reminder,” Chief Ossigora said. “At this point, I want to know exactly what happened in J103951, and who is responsible for these losses. Director Bilk you will coordinate that action.”
“Yes, sir,” Shanen responded. Leaning forward in her chair, she address Wilik. “Your certifications are up-to-date for field work, Agent Tols?”
Wilik blinked several times in surprise. He nodded and quickly recovered. “Yes, I am. Completed my yearly qualifications last month.”
“Then prep your gear. As agent on this case, you will lead the team.”
* * * * *
“Welcome to whiskey space,” Eveen said. The capsuleer’s sultry voice spoke over the internal comm. On board a buzzard class covert operations frigate, Wilik nearly lost his breakfast. Travel through the unstable wormhole was unsettling and quite different from jumping between two stargates. He felt as if was being quartered, drawn, and divided into multiple directions at once. When his head stopped spinning, he unbuckled his seat harness on the command bridge and took several deep breaths.
“Enjoy the ride?” Eveen asked.
“Not so well,” Wilik answered sluggishly.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, sounding concerned. “I know the transition is rough for inexperienced baseliners. By the way, now that we are here, I wanted to thank you for the contract on this mission. My corp and I needed it.”
“You’re welcome,” Wilik said, carefully standing up. “You are the best qualified since you discovered our lost assets. You’ve also explored the system somewhat, so I couldn’t ask for a better guide for our team.”
“Like I said, a routine exploration run,” Eveen told him.
“I was hoping for something like that when our people went silent. I just didn’t think it would take this long. A lot of questions need to be answered.”
“I will tell you, my gut feeling is there’s no simple explanation to what happened. Something doesn’t feel right to me, ” Eveen said. “You will see.”
“Based on the facts, I agree. The complete loss of communication from our people, stations, and equipment is very unusual. Assets don’t get attacked without someone getting notified,” Wilik reasoned.
He looked at his displays. The wormhole warped the fabric of space and time behind them. Radiating gravitational waves and other types of energy in all directions. Light and the background of space shimmered. He thought he could see back into their previous system of origin through the event horizon. Maybe even farther. Being a first time for Wilik, it was an incredible sight.
“Our full fleet has arrived,” Eveen reported.
“Looking good,” a male voice said on the comm. Another cov op frigate decloaked in a distant orbit around the wormhole. It was Pinnacle Star’s scout pilot, Yis. “Been lonely. Sitting around waiting for you to get here.”
“Here we are!” Eveen answered in a cheery voice. “Keep eyes on this entry point, Yis. We don’t want anyone slipping through the rear guard unnoticed.
“Aye, sir,” I’m on it. “Uploading waypoints of all current entries and exits now. No enemy targets located within last thirty,” Yis responded.
“Please connect me,” Wilik said. He heard a tone in his ear piece signaling his broadcast going active. “All wing commanders this is Agent Tohls, commanding fleet, designation Whiskey One, proceed with flight plan. Wing Three is our rear guard. Wing Two secure the system, lock down all points of entry. Wing One, proceed to your designated investigation points. Keep me apprised of any issues.”
Eveen was commander of Wing One for the mission. She switched over to her wing channel while monitoring the rest. “Squad commanders, action plan in play. Squad One, on me. See you all on the other side.” A number of voices responded in affirmation.
With her commands given, engines burned bright and all of their ships became visible as they pulled away from the wormhole. Groups aligning in unison. Every ship in the fleet was piloted by capsuleers from Pinnacle Star or Eveen’s contracted corporation. Chief Ossigora decided to add additional fire power to their exploratory endeavor. Every class of sub-capital was present.
“Wormhold stability looks good,” Eveen said. “We’ll be able to get back just fine.”
“Great news,” Wilik said, harnessing himself into his seat as the squad passed the warp barrier threshold. He could see the smooth warp tunnel outside the viewports as they traveled to their first of two planned destinations in system.
“Scan and gather information. If possible, connect to surviving networks and retrieve data,” Wiliks whispered. Reminding himself of his priorities and goals. The mission briefing was given, and all mission leaders and officers prepared. He saw all their faces in his mind trying to reassure himself. “Determine source cause and provide threat analysis. Is J103951 a viable candidate for continuation of corporate endeavors.”
“Not if you exclude capsuleer involvement,” Eveen said.
Wilik looked around, returning to full awareness. “I forgot you were listening.”
“I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop on your personal conversation,” she said. “Do you normally talk to yourself?”
Wilik laughed a little. “Only when I am feeling anxious. This mission is important to the company.” He paused considering her prior statement. “I agree with your assessment, capsuleer involvement is a necessity.”
“It is really dangerous out here,” Eveen said. “Far more dangerous than I think any of us truly realize. Even the capsuleers are growing relaxed, complacent. In addition to the known and unknown threats, I think we forget that once, a long time ago, some humans got stranded on the other side of a wormhole.” The ship began the process of deceleration.
“Very true,” Wilik said softly.
Coming out of warp, an installation of some kind came into view. “Never seen anything like that,” Wilik said intrigued. The smooth flow of the alloy structure formed a circular central disk with a number of sharp extensions reaching outward in various directions.
“It looks similar to Sleeper technology in design, but it is most definitely not. This is something recently built, while sleeper tech is much older,” Eveen said. As she was speaking, yellow and light green tinged energy discharges rippled along the extensions from the central disk. “Those occur at predictable intervals.”
“Can you perform a full sensor sweep?” Wilik asked.
“Already in progress.”
“Any idea to its purpose?” he asked.
“It’s giving off high levels of radiation in multiple spectrums. And it has a dampening impact on multiple ship systems. I can only speculate to the endgame. I personally believe, it is some kind of defensive system.”
“Can it be destroyed?” Wilik asked.
“Yes,” Eveen answered, “but, this is only one of a number spread out at the fringes of the system. I wouldn’t recommend it. No telling what kind of response it would provoke. Here comes the big release.”
As she was finishing her statement, a massive energy discharge traveling along the protrusions burst from the installation in a wave. As it spread in an expanding sphere, it accelerated and dissipated out into the distance. When it impacted their squad’s shields, the energy sparked and danced like yellowish lightning with an eerie light green color.
“Response? From who?” Wilik said in a nervous voice as he watched the wave’s interaction with their protective shielding.
“I believe it is Drifter technology. There are a lot of similarities,” Eveen answered, a touch of deep anxiety in her voice. “And, we don’t want to draw the attention of those abominations. Whatever is going on in this system, I don’t think your corporation will want to continue operations here.”
Wilik ran a hand over his face staring out at the facility. “I am leaning that direction.”
“The unknown,” Eveen said. “Mesmerizing. An obsessive need to solve the mysteries. Promises of great knowledge and lucrative opportunities. It drives a number of my people out here to Anoikis, but I fear we have awakened a threat that even we, in our godlike immortality, do not truly comprehend. Something that will consume us and everything we have become. Many capsuleers have decided to avoid them.”
“The Drifters?” Wilik concluded.
“Yes,” Eveen said. “I wanted you to see this for yourself, so you would know. We have only lightly explored this system, and I told Yis to keep his curiosity in check while he waited for us. I feel apprehensive thinking what may have happened to your people here was a coordinated attack from those black eyed monstrosities.”
Beneath the outer shell of the installation, Wilik could make out viewports and perhaps docking entrances for smaller vessels. They would have to get closer for a more detailed inspection, but he discounted that possibility based on Eveen’s observations. This was not their primary objective.
“Scan complete. Aligning squad to second destination,” Eveen said. The group shot into warp leaving the mysterious installation and its unknown purpose behind. Even with the Drifter discussion, Wilik recognized it was only speculation, and he realized what he needed to do to complete his mission.
* * * * *
Adjusting his exterior lights, Wilik hefted the black case he carried in his left hand. Fully geared in a tight fit, dark gray EV suit, he looked around the massive, depressurized docking bay. The only light came from the buzzard’s small docking pad and exterior illumination. Gripping the handle of his Caladari sidearm in its secured holster, he felt a little better about the venture.
“Eveen, we will be back as quickly as possible,” he said.
“Acknowledged, Wilik. Be careful.” She paused a moment. “I will be here. Keep your comm link active.”
The citadel was dead in space, surrounded by huge chunks of debris when they arrived. From what Wilik could tell, a series of explosions crippled the facility, exposing the inside to the vacuum. The power core was inactive, and he figured it went into critical shut down due to the catastrophic system damage. They were unable to establish a remote link to the system due to power loss. Wilik decided the best course of action to solve the mystery was to retrieve the only remaining living witness, the citadel’s artificial intelligence.
Getting seated in the multi purpose EV vehicle, Wilik looked at each team member. Four heavily armed security boots checked their weapons and buckled into their seats. The fireteam was led by Corporal Ander Miglev. Tech specialist Pai Lau sat across from him. She was looking back when his eyes passed over her. She gave him a nod and a small smile. Engineer Tifia Qerton made herself comfortable in the co-pilot seat. Their pilot, Ensign Cami Rhine, powered up the small vessel’s systems.
“Passenger check. Buckle up team. Respond,” Cami’s said over their suit comms.
“Engineer Qerton prepped and strapped,” she said immediately. Wilik could see her grinning from ear-to-ear when she glanced over toward their pilot.
“Corporal Miglev, confirmed. Stanson, Cooper, and Longmire ready.”
“Tohls, confirmed. Ready to proceed. Take us to the central technology core, Ensign.”
“Graviton docking harness deactivated,” Eveen reported.
“Acknowledged, Mother,” Cami said. “Vital services engaged. Pumping some fresh oxygen and energy, peeps. Enjoy. Hang on.”
The small, sleek vessel’s canopy opened. Exterior lighting activated and Cami lit the thrusters. The craft floated off the buzzard’s small docking pad, and with a quick push of the throttle they accelerated forward. Wilik watched the buzzard recede as Cami increased speed.
“In the pipe,” she reported as they entered an access tunnel leading them deeper into the station.
They flew passed dark corridors leading off in other directions and multiple offline containment field generating infrastructure designed to hold the atmosphere inside. Wilik noticed hard air locks wide open as if there was no attempt by the emergency systems to lock them down. When the fields failed, large and small, nothing protected the internal inhabitants from the vacuum of space.
Entering into one of the cityscape areas, the vessel carried them past blacked out, tall buildings, sports domes, housing complexes, medical facilities, business districts, parks, and education complexes. Anything and everything a city in the heavens would need to support a thriving population, children and adults. Looking up, Wilik peered out of the massive transparent, alloy windows with a view of the stars beyond. At least the external blast doors were open.
“No signs of life,” Ensign Rhine reported. “Nothing on sensors. No movement. No visual activity.”
Wilik listened in on the other comm channels as well. The other squads spread out in the system reporting in described the same thing. There was only destruction, no life. One squad commander put it simply. “Even the dead bodies are gone.”
“Descending into sub-level one,” Cami said, taking the EV vessel down toward ground level. She followed a large travel way leading to an air lock, welcoming them into the depths of below, swallowing them whole.
* * * * *
Wilik and Specialist Lio oversaw the portable power generator being installed by their skilled engineer, Tifia. She chatted incessantly as she worked, talking about everything from breakfast to Corporal Miglev’s choice of helmet. She was quick to point out that if his firmware was not up-to-date, he could have a problem with his HUD display showing accurate atmospheric data within a margin of five percent. Her positive nature made Wilik smile softly as he listened to her volunteer to help the corporal.
“No thank you, young lady,” Miglev said with courtesy. “It can wait until we return to Mother.” Two of his team patrolled the perimeter, and the other guarded the exterior hallway leading to their location.
“If that’s really what you want,” she said, appearing to understand. She quickly finished her part of the start up sequence and primed the generator for operation. Wilik was impressed by how quickly her hands worked, typing in the commands. Tifia truly was a skilled professional. A big green button appeared on her display, and she did not hesitate.
The generator powered on sending energy to the input conduits of the starving tech command center power grid. The external housing of the generator emitted green lights. Also, the lights shown along its connections, communicating positive operation. Tifia grinned and tapped her helmet a couple of times pointing to Agent Tohls telling him to proceed.
“Pai, your up,” Wilik said.
“Aye, sir,” the tech specialist responded, dropping into her seat, getting to work. Her station lit up, the large holographic display coming to life. Wilik stood slightly behind her watching.
“All quiet out here,” Ensign Rhine reported from the EV vessel at her scheduled time. The other members of the security team did as well.
Wilik rubbed his helmet, trying to be patient as Pai did her part. Multiple interfaces sprang to life as she cycled through the system.
“Everything looks in order,” Pai said with critical examination. Security protocols online, access normal. I think the system simply went off line due to a loss of main power. Auxilary power generation must have failed too. Yes, battery systems went down as designed, exactly at end of charge life. The system shut down normally. I don’t see any evidence of critical failure or damage. That is really odd considering the damage we’ve seen to the facility.”
“Can you bring the AI online?” Wilik asked.
“Yes. It will take a few minutes.”
“Do it,” Wilik ordered as he stepped over to a secondary station and opened the black case he brought with them. Drawing out heavy duty cables, he connected them to their correct ports. He powered up the portable system and accessed the interface preparing it for AI retrieval.
“She is coming online,” Pai reported.
Wilik looked over and observed as the holographic image of a woman’s head appeared outlined in white and blue. He waiting for the image to fully form.
“Emergency power detected,” the AI said. “Partial system function in effect. Designation 0013-74-Theta, model Aura, human interface. Accessing memory archive. How can I assist you?”
Wilik was about to speak when Aura continued in her dispassionate voice. He raised an eyebrow.
“Emergency. Emergency. Biomechanical pathogen detected. Medical condition red. Quarantine protocols initiated. Quarantine breach detected, priority one containment. Containment breach detected. Secondary measures initiated. Containment breach detected. Emergency. Emergency.”
Pai stared at Wilik with wide eyes. “Biomechanical pathogen?” she said softly, a touch of fear in her voice.
Aura continued as she loaded her last memories, a normal procedure.
“System virus detected. Firewall encryption and counter measures initiated.” Her face began to shift from blue to red as the foreign viral attack began to spread. “Viral containment failed. System infiltration commencing. Corruption inevitable.”
Wilik rubbed his face in anxiety.
“Emergency protocol thee seven-” Aura paused as her face changed to a full crimson.
Pai shook her head in disbelief. “This is the most advanced AI system in existence, how is that even possible?”
A line of static rolled through Aura’s image as the lines changed slightly. When she spoke, her voice dropped an octave.
“Emergency containment failure. Condition critical. Initiating full counter measures, directive one. Discontinue all communications. Erase all queued messages. Safety protocol override. Opening all air locks. All containment fields deactivated. Initiate core shutdown. Initiate auxiliary reactor core shutdown. Begin procedures for computer core shutdown.”
Wilik shook his head as the corrupted Aura came to the end of her emergency memory archive. She stared at them, unresponsive.
“Purge the virus,” Wilik said.
“I will try,” Pai replied, her hands flying over the holographic interface.
Strange symbols began to appear in the holographic image. The infiltrated Aura spoke unexpectedly. “There is no respite. You are already dead.”
This story is a sequel to Infiltration.