“I’ll never get used to these wetsuits.”
Stavros stopped walking and sat down on a rock.
“They’re a technological marvel,” he said. “Impervious to compromise, they say.”
Iskander snorted. “Yeah. ‘They Say.’ They say a lot of things.”
Stavros seized his friend by the wrist. Both men felt a fleeting tingle as their suits touched . “You want to breathe it, don’t you? The air. Well stop wanting that, right now. Do you understand me? Put it out of your head.”
“I know, I know,” said Iskander. “Still…to fill one’s lungs with the breath of home…to touch the soil with one’s bare hands…”
“Their pathogen detectors are far more sophisticated than you realize, I think,” said Stavros.
Iskander bristled. “I have the same training under my belt as you, Stavros. In fact, I do believe I scored higher than you in stealth. Do not presume to lecture me about avoiding detection. A man can have fantasies.”
“I’m sorry,” said Stavros. “He can, indeed. Truth be told, I share them. But we’re on a mission. There will be plenty of time for reflection when it’s been completed.”
“Right. If it’s completed.”
Stavros raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare. He gazed down upon the sea that crashed into the rocky beach at the bottom of the cliff they rested atop of and sighed. Its waters spread as far and as wide as even his suit’s vision enhancers could see, and they called to him, made his blood boil with a lust for adventure and discovery.
How it must be teeming with life, he marveled. Sharks, whales, octopuses…
“Don’t think I don’t see you getting all misty-eyed over there, Horatio Hornblower. I can hear your heart pumping faster, too.” Iskander tapped at his ear for emphasis. “Maybe this suit isn’t so bad, after all.”
Stavros smiled. “Fantasies.” His obsession with Earth’s nautical history was well-known, and he shouldn’t have been surprised that his enthusiasm was so transparent to his old friend.
“All I ask,” he said, “is a tall ship. And a star to steer her by.”
“An earth poem. A very old one. And this..” He paused, gestured grandly towards the sea. “This was the inspiration behind it. Behind it and so much other great literature. The ocean once represented the great unknown. And now, it does again.”
“Profound,” said Iskander, his eyes following a flock of seagulls passing overhead. “I hope our little visit here is worth starting a war over.”
“Listen,” said Stavros, “the only way there’ll be war is if we get caught. And we’re not going to get caught. You may be seventh level stealth, but I’m no slouch, myself, you know.” He stood up and brushed himself off, out of habit, knowing full well that the suit had already analyzed and expelled all foreign particles from his body. “Let’s go find what we came her for. It’s not far.”
They walked and climbed their way over the untamed terrain in relative silence for the next hour.
“Right here.” Stavros felt the suit readjust as he plucked a small tool from his waist and pointed it at the ground.
“Cross your fingers,” he said. “Their sensors should read the excavation as normal seismic activity, but if they don’t…”
“Yeah,” said Iskander, “Nice knowing you too.”
The beam from the device stirred up a tight whirlwind of rocky debris as it drilled its way into the Earth.
Iskander stepped forward with a different device in hand when the beam stopped and waited for the dust to clear. He pointed it at the perfectly round borehole.
A rather large, cube-shaped rock, , nearly as tall as an a man of average height emerged and Iskander carefully guided it away from the hole and onto the ground.
They both stared at it for a good long while, transfixed with wonder.
“Hundreds of thousands of years,” whispered Iskander. “They never found it. I’d give my right arm to crack it open and have a look at what’s inside.”
“Not our place, not our job,” said Stavros. “This, in addition to the data the suits have collected, fulfills our mission, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s get back to the scout and scoop this thing up and get outta here. Once we’re past the barricade there’ll be plenty of time to kick back and relax and process what we’ve seen. Until then we’ve got to remain focused. I’m addressing myself, as well.”
“Right, then. Let’s get moving.”
The journey back to the scout was a long one, an urgent sense of anxiety preventing either man from fully appreciating the scenery. The suits were recording it all, though. Every glimpse of every deer darting between every tree, every bird soaring across the clear blue sky, every lizard skittering across every rock, every…
….bumblebee? Stavros had never before seen a bee in the flesh, but something about the one presently hovering in front of his face seemed terribly amiss. He zoomed in on the creature’s eyes and swallowed hard. “We’re busted.”
More bees followed, and within moments they were surrounded.
“They’re mechanisms,” said Stavros. Primitive drones made to look like insects, to blend in with the environment. They’re watching us.”
“Why aren’t they doing anything? They’re just… hovering.”
“They’re confused,” said Stavros. “We look like humans, but we’re not producing carbon dioxide. They aren’t sure what they’re looking at and are probably running a systems-wide self-diagnostic trying to determine whether or not their visual receptors are malfunctioning. Perhaps if we–”
Iskander stuck his arm into the eerily still, silent swarm. “Kill!”
The bees sizzled, sparked, smoked and spiraled to the ground.
“You idiot!” Shouted Stavros, already running full speed towards the scout. “I may have been able to reprogram them to ignore us!”
Iskander stubbed his toe as he broke into a run, but he didn’t slow down. Didn’t look back.
Soon, they were back on board the scout, the viewport completely obscured by a blanket of bees.
“It’s gonna be a little trickier getting back through the blockade now that they know we’re here,” said Stavros, placing his hand on the smooth, featureless console.
“Welcome aboard, Captain Stavros,” the computer said cheerfully.
“Shut up. Burn those things off the hull and get us outta here, Arctic entry point 237 . Transfer controls to manual as soon as we hit the thermosphere. I wanna be ready for them.
“Inadvisable,” it warned even as it began to comply.
“If I want your opinion I’ll ask for it,” said Stavros. Go!”
The viewport cleared as the scout shot upwards into the sky.
“You’re not going to get the box?”
Stavros scowled at him.
“Come on,” said Iskander. We’re probably going to die, anyway. Let’s get what we came for.”
“We’re going to die because of your itchy trigger finger, remember that,” said Stavros as he assumed manual control of the craft and dived back down to the earth.
“What’s an itchy trigger finger?” muttered Iskander through clenched teeth, his body glued to his seat. His suit, having heard the query, quickly went to work accessing TREE and feeding him a wealth of information about both the etymology of the phrase itself as well as the primitive projectile weapons that inspired it. “Clear! This isn’t the time!” He swatted at his face as if there were a sapgnat buzzing around his head.
Stavros ignored him as he piloted them to the excavation site.
“There!” said Iskander, pointing unnecessarily. “Covered in bees.”
“Drones,” Stavros corrected. “Not real bees. Open cargo doors.”
He activated the collector and brought the box aboard, into the compartment beneath them, manually. There was a loud clunk that shook the scout, and Stavros ordered the doors shut. The drone-bees were beginning to accumulate on the viewport again.
Iskander maintained a firm, white-knuckled grip on his chair as the scout soared skyward.
“Uh oh,” said Stavros.
Iskander saw them, too–six flaming shapes entering the atmosphere, burning the sky in their wake. They fanned out and soon cooled down enough to be recognizable–Namuu interceptors. Automated, and likely constructed eons ago, but tactically brilliant and ruthlessly deadly nevertheless.
Stavros cursed under his breath. “The weapon,” he said.
“The one we weren’t supposed to use under any circumstances?”
Stavros sighed; shrugged. “Let’s start a war.”
He slid his hand across the panel and activated the targeting grid on the viewport. He selected all six targets and fired.
Everything–even the plumes of smoke they’d left in their wake–turned into clouds of white vapor, retaining their shapes for just a few moments before momentum dispersed them and they vanished from sight–and sensors.
“Nothing left at all,” said Iskander. “Not a single molecule.”
“Yeah,” said Stavros. “Ever hear of Pandora’s Box?”
“Well, we just blew the lid off it. They’re gonna wanna know what that technology was we just hit ’em with, and if they find out the truth, this strained tolerance they practice, allowing us to live independently of the Relocs as our own sovereign world, that all ends.”
Iskander knew that Stavros preferred to be kept talking while piloting, but he was far too terrified to hold up his end of the conversation. “Want some music?”
“Good idea,” he said as they entered the troposphere. “Hey. Computer. Play something from one of the 10gen composers. Um… how about some Markus?”
“Eighth or ninth?
Stavros snorted. “Are you kidding? Eighth. And make it something jaunty and upbeat.”
Music poured into the cabin as the computer obliged, and Iskander winced at that weird little twinge he always got in his stomach during the switch to artificial gravity. They were in space.
“Now comes the tricky part. Hang on!”
A shiny metallic sphere was heading towards them at an alarming speed when it suddenly made a full stop, hovering directly in the scout’s path as if it were taunting them, daring them to collide with it.
Stavros maintained course.
Stavros was somewhere else, his fingers dancing across the console like those of a concert pianist, his eyes fixed dead ahead.
The sphere shattered into hundreds of smaller spheres, which surrounded the scout and began to close in on it.
The spheres started to glow and spin, and within seconds they’d joined themselves together into an energy net.
“I got a perfect score on the sim for this, you know,” said Stavros. “Piece of cake.”
The scout spun wildly about as Stavros expertly maneuvered her, with tight little movements, through the rapidly closing net, its flailing blue tendrils caressing the hull like tongues of fire.
“Almost there,” breathed Stavros. Iskander looked at him and saw Earth’s moon reflected in the pupils of his eyes.
They barely made it. There was a dramatic swell in the music when they narrowly slipped sideways through a too-close-for-comfort gap in the glowing, burning blue mesh of the net. Iskander glanced at his rear monitor and watched as the tiny spheres disengaged the net and coalesced back into the one larger one.
“Piece of cake,” said Stavros as they approached Luna.
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you? Timed it to sync with the music.”
Stavros winked. “Now let me see if I remember where we parked. We’re going to fold as soon as we’re aboard Kutan, so be ready.”
“Oh, they’ll love that,” said Iskander. “As if we haven’t already pissed them off enough, and now you’re going to do the thing we do that they hate most, right in front of them.”
“I don’t see that we have much choice. Any alternatives, Mr. seventh level stealth?”
Iskander said nothing. The sphere was getting closer.
“Class two Nammu cruiser has entered the solar system. Estimated arrival: five minutes,” said the computer.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be long gone by the time they get here,” said Stavros as he spotted their ship, nestled against the eastern inner wall of Orlov Y.
“I’ve never been so happy to see that slimy blob of intelligent goop” said Iskander.
“Don’t talk like that around her,” Stavros called over the strains of the bombastic march now flooding the ship’s cabin.
“Hey,” said Iskander, “I did say it was intelligent.”
“Feeding time, baby girl,” said Stavros.
The ship lit up as it saw them approach, and oozed its way out of the crater like a dog greeting its master upon his return.
It stretched itself outward like a long, gooey string of pizza cheese and reached past the scout to snatch up their pursuer.
The sphere was soon encased within an undulating mass of glowing pink slime, and there was a split-second flash of blinding white light as the ship devoured it.
The scout plunged into into the ship’s warm, welcoming insides, and the stars around them seemed to blur and stretch as the first stages of fold were initiated.
Kutan devoured the scout around its two passengers and their newly acquired treasure, and Iskander screamed as the suits exited their bodies and rejoined the living vessel. He was never going to like traveling naked inside of a giant ball of slime. It was worse than the suit, but fortunately it didn’t ever last long.
The universe around him bent in half and his brain blinked out for a moment.
“Home sweet home,” said Stavros, as their vision cleared and Galenia came into view.