A lost drone has come under attack.
Hell is the knowledge of opportunity lost;
The place where the man I am comes face to face
With the man I might have been.
– Author Unknown
An urgent and unexpected knocking at the door grated into his consciousness. Cendor DeVang looked up with contempt, muttering a curse as he glanced at the clock. Long rays of sunlight dancing through lingering clouds of smoke confirmed the lateness of the day. Sheila must have stepped away. Her timing is impeccable.
He sat up at his desk and crushed the life out of a Fuente Fuente MagellanX, the best cigar he’d ever tasted. “Yes, what is it?” he demanded, watching as a stringy, white ribbon of smoke curled up towards the vaulted ceiling, marking the death of something beautiful.
The door opened and a muffled voice filtered into the room. “He’s here.” A pause, and then, “will do.” Why didn’t I just keep quiet? The last thing I need today is a ten o’clock mystery in a five o’clock world…
A young man dressed in the white uniform of the Interstellar Probe division pushed through the door with care and stopped in the doorway, head bowed in a respectful manner as if wanting an invitation to be more of a pain in the ass than he already was.
Golden epaulets on the visitor’s lapel told Cendor he was a mid-level supervisor, but the burden he carried elevated his stature a notch or two in the Director’s eyes. “Come in, come in,” Cendor said, eying the datapad used to transport sensitive information between departments. Interesting…
Cendor recognized the man as Chuck Carlson, a new hire he’d been introduced to recently, with a reputation for following orders and doing things by the book. Carlson appeared to be nervous as he lifted his head and marched into the room, forgetting to close the door.
With the flick of a finger, he motioned Chuck to a leather chair in front of his desk and watched the young man’s augmented eyes wander about the room as he approached. Cendor noted with pride that everywhere Carlson’s gaze wandered, trophies and mementos from a lifetime of service to the Senka Corporate seemed impress the first time visitor.
“Wow. I’ve heard stories about this place,” he said, staring at a large, stuffed creature with huge mandibles and sharp, pointed pincers that seemed to defy the laws of evolution. “They don’t do it justice.”
Cendor enjoyed the young supervisor’s enthusiasm, but his focus centered on the datapad marked Eyes Only. “I’ve heard it described as ‘the zoo’ a few times, but they’re just perks of the position, Mr. Carlson. I’m sure you didn’t come here to discuss my pitiful attempts at feng shui, so what can I do for you today?”
That didn’t come out right, he thought, seeing Carlson stiffen at his standard greeting for people he didn’t want to see.
“I’m, uh, sorry for the intrusion, sir. The Assistant Director thought this should be brought to your personal attention immediately.” He stood at attention and stuck the datapad out at arm’s length across the massive oak desk, wincing as Cendor took it.
“Relax. I growl a lot, but I don’t bite. Have a seat.” He glanced at a few images returned by a Lightseeker drone, 2D screenshots taken from probe video included in a subdirectory. They showed an alien society that had collapsed, leaving behind yet another archaeological mystery to be unraveled, no different from the hundreds already under investigation. Cendor wasn’t impressed.
“It’s just another civilization without civilians, nothing I haven’t seen before. Was there something specific you wanted to show me?”
“Well s-sir,” beads of sweat were forming on his forehead, “it’s a Type-0 civ that was in transition to Type 1, remarkably Earth-like, that went extinct a few hundred years ago. A little more, maybe a little less.”
Cendor put the datapad down. “And this merits an Eyes Only tag? You’ve got to be kidding me.” The old clock chimed five times as he stared into Carlson’s trembling face. His discomfort grew with every chime and Cendor began to wonder what AD Blevins had been thinking, sending this boy to his political death at five o’clock on a Friday.
“Mr. Carlson, maybe you’re not aware, but I’ve worked at the Directorate of Exploration and Science for almost 200 years. In fact, when I worked in your section, my father sat in this chair. I’ve seen my share of probe data, son, and while it was interesting when I was your age, I have better things to do now.” Like finish that cigar and go home. “Get to the point.”
Chuck bowed his head slightly. “I apologize, sir, but let me explain. We… We lost a Lightseeker a while back, sir, and –“
“Wait, how do you lose a Lightseeker?”
“Its targeting system malfunctioned? We’re not sure. It reported targeting a star .33 HL hours away, went into HyperLight on schedule and didn’t wake up for almost a month. It now reports distress at a location of 8F0016Z8400.262.”
Cendor thought for a moment. “8F00? That’s near the center of the galaxy, right?”
“Yes, sir,” he coughed. “Actually, it’s on the other side of the center. The drone is damaged, but functional. The, um, full report is listed in the, um, index.”
Cendor grabbed the datapad and thumbed to the index. Atmospheric Analysis, Biological Catalog, Chemical Analysis… What the hell?
He dropped the pad in disgust and its clatter echoed his frustration. “There’s more than fifty pages of findings, Mr. Carlson! Look, something crawled up your ass and made you walk down here, and I’m not going to stick my hand up there to fish it out. Just show me what I need to know! Please.” There’s something fishy going on here…
Carlson grabbed the datapad from the desk and began mashing inputs as if they were bugs. “I’m sorry, Director. The AD told me to be vague and keep you busy until he got here, which I now pray comes sooner, rather than later.” He found the file he was looking for, flipped the pad over and handed it back. “He, um, led me to believe you enjoyed reaching your own conclusions, sir. I dislike being vague.”
Cendor reached for the pad and smiled a knowing smile. “Okay, that makes more sense. It’s a gag. You’re the new guy, and Sato set you up. I wondered why he’d let a junior member bring Eyes Only data to me and not do it himself.”
The shuffling of footsteps from down the hall spilled through the open door. Cendor glanced up to see Sato Blevins and a small entourage march past Sheila’s empty desk. “It looks like you’re off the hook for now, Mr. Carlson. Lucky you.”
Sato’s grin spoke volumes as he entered the room. “Well, I see you haven’t killed him yet.”
“I was about to,” Cendor said through narrowing eyes, mentally checking off the department heads that followed him in. It looks like going home anytime soon is out of the question.
Right on Sato’s coattails came Cendor’s counterpart from the other side of the complex, Jim Harbaugh, the Director of Science. Isamu Tanaka, the Corporate Liaison and perennial pain in the ass bureaucrat came next, followed by his evil twin, Ginger Edwards from Corporate Finance. And, bringing up the rear, last but never least, Sam Oda from Exobiology… Oh boy. This will be fun.
Cendor nodded to Jim, but took the time to address the others. “Isamu, Ginger, what a pleasant surprise,” Cendor said with a smile, although it wasn’t. A hundred years spent climbing the corporate ladder gave him the presence of mind to marginalize his rival from Exobiology by ignoring him outright. He looked back to Sato for an explanation as Sam Oda scowled.
Sato winked. “Have you watched the video yet?”
“No, I was just about to,” Cendor said, holding up the datapad, still annoyed by the sudden turn of events that had no apparent end.
Sato seemed pleased. “Good, we can all watch it together. Run it through the CommLink. I’ll get the curtains and lights.”
“Sure.” Cendor fed a few commands into the datapad. The lights dimmed and the room took on the aura of a planetarium as pinpricks of light coated the ceiling. As they congealed into the heavenly splendor of the center of the galaxy, a planet shimmered into existence above and to the left of Cendor’s desk. It was three-dimensional and had a weight to it that made it seem alive as it spun on its axis.
Deep blue oceans and swirling bands of clouds mingled with unfamiliar continents. A moon coalesced, small and waning beyond another that waxed into fullness as the holodynamic presentation put the scene in motion. Above his desk, the avatar of a Lightseeker morphed into focus with such detail that he could see scratches and dents on the hull. The SDE Calypso appeared to be solid enough to touch.
Cendor leaned back in his chair in awe. “I’ll never get used to the clarity and splendor of the new Clink. The old holographic systems could never do this scene justice.”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Sato smiled.
Light from the nearby star illuminated one side of the ship’s hull, leaving the other in the pitch-black shadow of space. Cendor started to realize what this might be about when he looked around the room, waiting like everyone else for whatever came next.
“Lady and gentlemen, may I introduce you to an old friend of ours,” Sato narrated the moment he’d obviously been waiting for. “I give you… The Bakudan! But this is no ordinary Bakudan, this one is brand new, only a few hundred years old. And if you watch carefully, you’ll see I’ve taught it a new trick.”
They all stood to get a better view as an object everyone except Chuck was familiar with shimmered into existence and moved directly at the Senkan drone on a downward attack angle. It was a wedge-shaped craft, oblong, with a pointed leading edge and a flat grey finish. Sato reached out and stroked it as if it were a pet. “Hello, gorgeous. Come to daddy!”
Cendor clucked his tongue. “Well I’ll be damned. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one of those elusive little things. Since all we’ve ever seen it do is engage and destroy anything in its path, I’m assuming this is the part where it blows up and takes our probe with it?” But, we wouldn’t need the Liaison for that.
“No, my friend,” Sato said with pride. “This time, the good guys win. Watch, and be amazed at my brilliance.”
They all inched forward to see the show. The distinctive alien drone crackled with energy and a blue-green glow radiated along the length of its hull. The Bakudan stalked the Lightseeker like a nemesis, pitched over, and accelerated into its target with mirth.
The collision rocked the Lightseeker. The Bakudan’s leading edge sliced into the larger ship’s skin and pierced it like an arrow. The two ships began a silent dance in the vacuum of space, twisting and turning from the momentum of the attack that left the Bakudan lodged in the aft decking of the Senkan drone.
Instead of the flash of light and abrupt cessation of video Cendor had witnessed so many times before, the burst of energy from this attack dissipated across the hull of the Lightseeker and discharged into space with a flash that lit up the entire room.
“The wait is over,” Sato grinned. “The missing link between a thousand dead civilizations is now firmly within our grasp. All you have to do is get inside this thing and figure out if we’re next on the list.”