Pale Black Dot by 4642 Elitist Bastard
Sleep/Wake: The Pale Black Dot, Part 1
Date: 25 September 2009, 2:17 am
"Dr. Chandra, will I dream?"
HAL 9000 (2010: Odyssey Two)
Archaeology expedition: League of Races L.S.S. Niremus ETT-95
26 May 2609
Queloz b (51 Pegasi system)
You have one new mail from the system.
Durandal read the message, a flicker of concern and worry spiking through his mind.
There have been ninety-two failed login attempts on your account. Please consider regenerating your authentication keys. Examine /var/log/auth/2123 for further information. (Please note that logs in /var/log/auth are sorted by Universal Star Time.)
He regenerated his keys in an instant, and turned his attention to the slightly more worrying matter of who had been trying to authenticate as him. Logging in as the shipboard AI had its obvious advantages: Durandal had the majority of the administrative privileges, and the computer accepted his orders without question.
Durandal examined the network traffic: practically nothing out of the ordinary, apart from... there. Ninety-three transactions with the directory service over one and a half hours that morning, all originating from Prof. Kannippen's favourite terminal in Engineering.
The Professor was currently on survey team B... who were still just within range of the intercom. He hailed Kannippen's radio.
The Professor's Slavic voice sounded quietly agitated, and the rumble of the Puma's engine could be heard muddying the conversation with background noise.
"Kannippen, this is Durandal. I know this is a bad time, but did you try to authenticate as me from terminal C in Engineering between two o'clock and three thirty today?"
"Um... no. Why do you ask?"
"I just received some system mail saying that there were ninety-two failed login attempts using my credentials... and I traced them back to that terminal."
"Well... I was asleep then. Haven't a clue."
"OK, Professor. Thank you."
He closed the channel, and put in an order for the terminal to be replaced and brought in for examination. Durandal knew Kannippen well enough to know that he wasn't the sort of person to go snooping, and was even less likely to do so with malicious intentions.
He checked the location of the survey teams. The A team was headed towards the Forerunner "city" they'd tentatively named Berkeley around fifty kilometres west of the base, and the B and C teams were off to examine various pock-marks on the satellite image that looked interesting. Excellent.
Durandal returned to the more mundane business of his task list, finished it within half a second, and found himself bored. The curse of such a speedy mind was that one always had trouble finding enough work for it.
Sometimes, he envied his biological counterparts.
His thread of thought was interrupted by a hail from the Cupertino base.
"This is Durandal."
"Cupertino here. We've encountered a Sentinel."
"Is it hostile?"
"No. It's identified itself as Sector Seven Agent Four Two Three."
"Ask it if it would mind conversing with me dir"
"I would be quite happy to converse directly with your construct on any questions your party has," a warbling male voice blared over the audio channel.
If Durandal had had real lungs, he would have breathed a sigh of relief as he exchanged frequencies and encryption keys with the Sentinel. Perhaps this was an opportunity to finally get some real archaeology done.
51 Pegasi blazed in the sky, scorching the umber sands with intense infra-red radiation. There was no wind to speak of, which made the heat all the more intolerable. No wind meant no sound, apart from the quiet, repeating growl of an engine.
The Puma rumbled up to a halt as Sojourner applied the brakes. She pulled out her term, uttered the word "map," and examined the satellite image that covered the screen.
They were within a two kilometres of the pock-mark on the map... so what was that crater directly ahead?
"We're still two kilometres away from the major pock-mark," she said, half-addressing Mr. Santom, half speaking her thoughts, "so what's that?"
"Would it be wise to examine it further?" Santom asked, peering over Sojourner's shoulder.
"Probably... give me a moment."
Sojourner zoomed in on the map, close to the crash site. Their present location was close to what looked like a long skid mark, pointing north-east.
"That's it," she told Santom, pointing at the skid mark.
"Could it be jetsam?"
Sojourner nodded, quietly. That was certainly a possibility. Either way, it was worth a look.
"Possibly. Worth a look, anyway. Give me a second."
She dropped the map into the tray and hailed the Niremus.
"Durandal here. Go ahead."
"Durandal, this is Rosemary. We're two kilometres south-east of the edge of the large crater, and we've run across a long skid-mark that's parallel to the crater's debris field. Mr. Santom thinks it's jetsam, in which case, it'll probably be worth a look."
"Acknowledged, I don't see a problem so go on in."
"Any news from your end?"
"Yes. I've been conversing with a Sentinel who seems to be happy with allowing us to roam around. It's told me that there's a teleportation grid, so if you need to use that, call me and I'll liaise with the natives."
Interesting. Maybe it would be of some use... but teleportation wasn't a particularly nice way of travelling, Sojourner knew from personal experience.
"Acknowledged, thank you. Charlie team out."
Professor Sojourner undid her seatbelt and stowed her term back in her pocket.
"Right, then... Mr. Santom, let's go."
The Sangheili clambered out of the back seat, and pulled a term out of his breast pocket as Sojourner activated the Puma's lock. True, there wasn't anyone likely to steal the car on Queloz b, but it came instinctively.
The map's skid mark translated to a shallow gully in the desert sand, around a hundred metres long and twenty metres deep at the far end. It was wide enough for two to walk abreast down its length.
"There it is," Sojourner said, moving closer to the point of impact.
"I can't see anything."
"Look closely there's a surface there."
Santom craned his head forward, and examined the wall of orange sand. She was right there was a thin coating of sand over a dark grey, flat surface. He brushed the sand away plastasteel? It felt like it.
"Fascinating," he muttered. How long had it been buried here? Winds in this area were practically non-existent, so whatever this was could have been embedded here for years.
"What do you think?" Sojourner asked.
"It feels like some kind of thick composite material, probably plastasteel. I think we should excavate it if we wish to examine it further."
Sojourner brushed away more of the dust coating, and worked to her left, rubbing her palm against the object until she reached an edge. It was a hard right angle, and didn't end as she slowly eased her hand into the sand. This was going to take a while... unless...
"I think it's too deeply embedded," Sojourner said, pulling her hand out with some effort.
"Should I fetch the excavation tools?"
"No. I have a better idea."
She pulled out her term, shaking sand from under her fingernails, and hailed the Niremus again.
"This is Durandal, go ahead."
"Durandal, it's Charlie team again. You said that there was a teleportation grid available?"
"Yes, there is."
"Can you consult with your new friend and ask if it's possible to teleport something embedded in, say, twenty metres of sand to the surface?"
"One moment... yes, it should be possible."
"Can you get a fix on the end of the skid mark?"
"Two metres north-east-north of your current location, you said? One moment... the teleportation grid has a lock on a plastasteel container mostly embedded in sand. Is that it?"
"Yes. If you could just put it close to where the Puma's parked, we could take a closer look and it'd be less effort to load it on to the vehicle."
"Understood. On your mark, then."
"Give us a moment." She turned to Santom. "Right, let's get back to the surface."
"Can we not simply" began the Sangheili.
"No," Rosemary interrupted, "believe me, Forerunner teleportation is highly unpleasant. Besides, at my age, you can't afford to be messing around with Slipspace."
They trudged back into the blazing sunlight, and leaned against the bonnet of the car as Sojourner retrieved her term again.
"Durandal, whenever you're ready, beam it up."
There was a flash and a sharp crack as a bubble of Slipspace whirled about the embedded object, and snapped back into reality around ten metres away to the left of the gouge in the desert, a couple of metres above the ground. It landed with an unceremonious thump and a loud crack as something within was damaged.
Hopefully, it wasn't anything major. An undamaged specimen would do miracles for modern understanding of wartime technology... if only to have something to show history classes other than dates and photographs.
Sand crumbled and fell from the object as it collapsed from its near-vertical position to lie in the sand.
"Thank you, Durandal. Charlie team out."
Now the object was fully exposed, it quickly became clear that its shape was long, cuboid, and bulky. Grey plastasteel and silver aluminium flashed in the blazing sunlight of 51 Pegasi.
Sojourner scraped away the remaining sand. There were ridges... no, grooves. She carved the sand out of them, and examined the result.
The old UNSC insignia, before the Treaty of New Marathon in 2554... goodness, this was old. And therefore, by definition, the crater just north-west would be an equally old object... possibly the ship from which this object had been jettisoned.
She examined the embossed print beneath it.
"Goodness... this could date back to the time of the War," she muttered under her breath.
"How can you tell?" Santom inquired.
"Well, the present UNSC insignia was introduced in 2554. This therefore pre-dates that, and you'll also notice that the typeface used for the laser embossing is Veridia. That was used between March 2540 and July 2553, after which the UNSC began to use Helvetica. It's these little details that help you to date things at first sight, Mr. Santom."
"I understand. This is... intriguing."
Sojourner brushed off more of the sand, and read on.
TYPE 'A' CRYOGENIC CHAMBER, MK. III (serial no. 259-9754785318549653/3)
U.N.S.C. FORWARD UNTO DAWN (FFG-343)
Sojourner's right eyebrow spiked violently up her wrinkled forehead.
"The Forward Unto Dawn is the ship Arbiter 'Vadam returned in after assassinating the Prophet of Truth when he returned the Master Chief's body to Earth... and it's currently preserved in the Smithsonian."
"Then what's this doing here?"
"Presumably it was just moved in from the ship as a replacement... but I don't think protocol allowed for that. Something to do with part matching, an engineering thing."
"You're familiar with"
"Yes, I am familiar with UNSC protocols during the latter period of the war I wrote my dissertation on it."
"So, in theory, this shouldn't be here."
"Yes..." Sojourner said, a slight well of anticipation building in her chest cavity, "but that also raises a more pressing matter. Cryogenic preservation chambers were only ejected when they were occupied and the ship was about to crash... there's a person in here."
"A person?" Santom's mandibles twitched slightly; Sojourner had come to understand that this was the Sangheili approximation of raising one's eyebrows.
"Yes. Still preserved... otherwise the door would have been opened. And the green light's still on, so it's still functioning perfectly. As it was designed to."
"Anyway, bottom line is... there's a person in here, still alive."
"Shall we thaw them out?"
"I think that's a good idea... but I suggest having the first aid ready. Long freezes have been known to cause problems. And we'll have to turn it up the right way first."
"I will do it."
"Thanks," Sojourner said, standing back as Santom crouched, stuck two three-fingered hands under the chamber, and flicked his wrists.
A muted thump and a cloud of brown dust cleared, and Sojourner's eyebrows slid yet further up her forehead.
"Well..." she said, crouching and examining the occupant's gold visor, "when I said there was a person in here, I certainly wasn't expecting that."
Laid snugly inside the box, behind a long crack in the glass was the bulky, emerald-green, armour-clad body of a SPARTAN. Bloodstains and filthy green spatters covered the chest plate, and numerous cracks, contusions, burnt patches and laser pits peppered the plating. Chest and shoulder segments had melted into each other at the point of articulation, surrounded by a powdery white ring of solidified titanium.
"That's..." Santom began, staring at the body.
Sojourner checked the screen at the front.
ACTIVE for 57y4m8d21h29m8s
Est. remaining time: 11y0m3d5h44m56s
REDUNDANT CIRCUITS IN OPERATION
REVIVAL SEQUENCE INITIATED BY PHYSICAL DAMAGE
Est. time to revival: 2m25s
[MEDICAL] [CANCEL REVIVAL]
"That can't be right," Santom said, and Sojourner realised she'd been reading out loud from the display.
"I don't think that's the most important thing right now... this person's going to be coming out of here in a few minutes. Mr. Santom, fetch the first aid kit for me."
He trudged back to the car and began rootling through the untidy mess in the trunk as Sojourner again pulled the computer out of her pocket and called the Niremus.
"Durandal, we've found what you just teleported... it's a cryopreservation chamber."
"A cryopreservation chamber from a wartime ship, and it's active."
"Active as in there's"
"Yes, there's someone in there. You won't believe this, but according to the panel on the front... it's a Spartan."
"I presume you mean one of the elite band of soldiers during the war."
"Shall I teleport it over here?"
"I think it's best not to. It was damaged during transport, there's a crack in the lid... the automatic bailout sequence has started. He'll have woken up in two minutes."
"Understood. I'll call Sickbay and tell them to prepare an away team to rendezvous with you. If it is a Spartan, you might also need heavy lifting gear, so let me know if you need any teleported over."
"Thank you, Durandal. Also, could you call Indra and let her know what's going on?"
"I already have. Keep in touch. Niremus out."
She stowed the terminal back away and tapped the medical button. Its contents weren't of any use. An ECG, an EEG... none of it made any sense to her.
Twenty seconds. Ten... five... sequence complete.
There was a slow hiss as the chamber de-pressurised and the lid popped open, bouncing slightly off the rim of the chamber... and a loud, gravelly, muted cough.
Dr. Martha Kyvan stuffed the computer into her top pocket, and slung the medical kit over her shoulder. She took a deep breath, and stood up straight, more than a little apprehensive of what was to come... damn.
"Oh, and Indra?"
The Ship Master stuck her head back around the ward's doorframe.
"Make sure Kgalagdi and his men don't learn about this until we have him safely back here... I'm not turning this into a media circus."
"Of course, Martha... I'll keep them out of your way."
Indra disappeared back along the corridor, and Kyvan stood straight again, breathing deeply.
"Go ahead, Durandal."
"OK. Teleporting in three, two, one..."
There was a whoosh and a flash, and Kyvan felt herself flailing on every possible axis, whirling about, gold Slipspace enclosing her... and dumping her inelegantly into the sand.
She became aware of a wrinkled hand in front of her face, and the nasal but good-natured British voice that accompanied it.
"Told you it wasn't very pleasant... but thank you for coming."
Sojourner helped Martha to her feet as she brushed the sand from her clothes.
It was true, what they said about everything in pictures looking smaller... the Spartan was massive. Not inhumanly massive, but massive for a human.
He (she? It?) was half-crawled out from the metallic chamber, the head and arms clear, the legs still immobile in the tube... and a quiet, repeated, forced cough-like sound was coming from it.
"Any idea who it is?"
"Judging by the display, he's Master Chief SPARTAN-117..."
Martha opened the medical kit, and knelt down in front of the Spartan. Slowly, cautiously, the helmet tilted upwards, the visor turning to face her.
She could see her own reflection god, did her nose really look like that? Stop it.
"Are you OK... um..."
Damn. How were you supposed to address a SPARTAN?
No response. Just another of those forced, horrible, gastric sounds... he's going to be sick.
"We need to get his helmet off... quick."
"I don't know... pull it off? Unscrew it?"
Well, here goes...
"Chief, we need to get your helmet off, is that OK?"
A frantic nod, and a wheeze as two armoured hands fumbled for the latches on the helmet, pushed them, and a muted whump as the helmet fell to the sand, only to be immediately splashed with foul-smelling, lumpy, yellow vomit.
"Someone get him some water," Martha said, shuffling back from the rapidly gathering pool of gastric acid. It sank into the sand, leaving a pungent-smelling covering of digested lumps and viscous clumps of nastiness.
Santom crouched next to her, and unscrewed a flask of bottled water.
"Wait a moment."
The Spartan coughed, gasping for breath, trying to purge the remains of the vile taste from his mouth, spluttering, spitting, panting.
"He should be lying down, that'll make him more comfortable. I'll take that," she said, taking the water flask, "you move him."
Santom stood, bent over, and gently lifted the Chief out of the chamber. An exhausted grunt came from his mouth as the Sangheili turned him over, and laid him on his back in the sand. Clambering over the box, Kyvan crouched next to his head, and looked him in the eyes.
His eyelids flickered with panic, the pupils dilated like black holes against his white too white skin, which itself was peppered with scars, pits, and unnatural-looking ageing. A neglected crew cut flopped off his scalp, and nauseous residue surrounded the corners of his lips.
Gently, she pushed her hand against his chest, her fingers rubbing against some residual green gooey substance. She ignored it.
"Master Chief... my name is Martha. I'm here to help you."
"Wh wha whe" he blabbered incoherently, trying to raise himself on his arms, which immediately buckled under the weight.
"Calm down, you're going to be OK..."
"Cotan were corta"
With a pained grunt of effort, he tried to lift himself back on to his arms, and made a horrible gurgling noise as his back and head thumped back in to the sand.
Slowly, John regained consciousness.
He was still alive. That was a pleasant surprise. His mouth felt dry and tasted of a nasty mix of blood, vomit and some kind of medicine... although he felt a little better than he remembered feeling
however long ago it was.
He clenched his right fist, and felt his bare fingertips make contact with bare palms. His gloves were off... and he could feel soft cloth making contact with his front and back...
John surmised he was naked, in bed and in some kind of hospital ward. Cautiously, he opened his eyes.
He shut them forcefully as he was blinded by the harsh light from an overhead fluorescent tube, and he became vaguely aware of a male voice.
"Dr. Kyvan? Our guest is waking up."
A slightly more familiar female voice responded.
"Thank you, Durandal."
There was the soft, repeated sound of approaching footsteps, and the strange feel of soft fingertips on his forehead.
The voice was soft, feminine and whispered. John struggled to assign a name to the face to the voice... that Muslim lady who he'd seen just after... whatever it was. With the Elite and the middle aged curly-haired ginger woman.
He took a deep breath, and forced his eyelids open. Yes. He'd been right. The lady with the dark headscarf and the narrow lips...
"Hello, Master Chief. Do you remember who I am?"
John searched his memory for a name to tie to the face.
" he whispered, slowly, finding his voice hoarse.
"My name is Martha Kyvan, I'm a doctor. Do you know where you are?"
He processed the question, swallowed, and breathed in.
I'm not on the Dawn."
"No. You're not. You're aboard the League of Races starship Niremus, and we're landed on a planet called Queloz b in the 51 Pegasi system."
Slowly, he blinked, and his eyes refocused. John's head thumped with a migraine, and his muscles and joints ached all over
that was normal.
"How do you feel?" Kyvan said, softly, a little louder this time.
John coughed, and felt like his uvula had just been torn out.
" he whispered, pausing to gather more breath, "could I have some water, please?"
There was a quiet splashing noise and a clatter as Kyvan retrieved a bottle of water out of nowhere. The male voice had a subtle electronic warble to it
maybe it was an artificial intelligence.
where was she? Maybe
His reverie was interrupted by water spilling across his cheeks and into the sheet.
" Kyvan said, producing a cloth from somewhere and wiping around his face, "don't worry."
"Sorry," John choked.
There was a loud buzz, and a female voice leaked through a speaker somewhere.
"Sickbay, this is Byrne. What is the status of our guest?"
Kyvan visibly sighed, and John could see her fingers crossed out of the corner of his eye.
"He's regained consciousness, but he's very tired, I'd like to give him some time to recuperate
"Sorry about that," Kyvan said, "that was the shipmaster, she wants to see you at some point, I imagine."
John swallowed some of the water and mouthed a "thank you."
"You're welcome. I have some other business I need to be doing, so I need to go now. This is Durandal, he's our shipboard AI let him know if you need anything."
John managed another "thank you" as Kyvan disappeared, and the slightly-translucent face of a man appeared above him.
The name sounded familiar for some reason. Some bizarre, obscure reason somewhere in the recesses of his mind
he couldn't remember.
"Hello, Master Chief," the AI said, warmly. The hair was dark and short, and the face was moderately attractive, but no more and no less. There was something unusually average about this AI, John decided
he hadn't been very original when designing his hologram.
"Hello," John muttered.
"I suggest you get some sleep now," Durandal said, "I'll be here if you need anything."
"Thank you," he mouthed, and complied with the AI's suggestion immediately.
UNSC Enterprise (NCC-11907)
27 May 2609
High Earth Orbit (Solar System)
The door slid open, and Amos's First Officer appeared in the doorway.
"Morning, Serena. What can I do for you?"
"We've just had orders dispatched to the top of the queue from ONI... apparently, there's an escort mission that needs doing."
"Well... we're not exactly busy. ONI, you said?"
Amos leaned back in his chair, fantasising for a moment about stabbing the ONI liaison officer with a sharp implement no, many people stabbing the ONI liaison officer with many sharp implements. Ah well. At least it was something to do... fantasising about murdering spooks would have to wait.
"Do we need to pick anyone up for this?"
"No the order is simply to head straight to Queloz b at best speed, and return once the LO has collected the cargo."
"Ambiguous, what do you expect?"
Amos sighed, stood, and stretched.
"Anyway... what do they want with Queloz b?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Some kind of super-secret new technology?"
"Well... just as long as it doesn't involve fighting. The Enterprise is hardly in a fit state for a space battle, less still for an encounter with our TRA friends... anyway, Serena, tell ONI we'll take it, then inform the crew."
"Of course, Alan."
Amos smiled, stood, and headed for the other end of the cabin. He jabbed the door button. Nothing happened.
Cursing inventively, he pulled the doors apart manually, and climbed the stairs to the bridge.
"Helmsman, set a new course. Take us to Queloz b at best speed."
Rottomer swivelled around in his chair, a puzzled look on his face.
"Queloz b? Never heard of it."
"It's around 51 Pegasi, try that."
"One sec... got it. There. We can be there in fifteen hours, forty-two minutes, sir."
"Sixteen? That's quicker than I'd expected."
Amos sat back in the chair, and pulled the seatbelt on. There was a quiet click as Rottomer did the same.
He looked around briefly: the bridge was practically deserted. As usual.
"Attention all decks, this is Commander Blaine,"Serena's voice percolated over the intercom, "we have new orders and will be leaving our patrol to carry out an ONI escort mission via Queloz b. All hands prepare for free fall followed by nought point three earth gravities for five seconds. I'll repeat that: we are now heading to Queloz b, please prepare for brief free fall followed by 0.3G for five seconds. Announcement ends."
There was a hiss as the space cabin door opened and Blaine clambered up the stairway. How the hell had she managed to make the door work? The damn thing needed looking at.
"Ready for departure," she said, yawning, strapping herself into her seat and applying the rotary brake.
"OK, Serena... all set, Mr. Rottomer?"
"Course plotted, we're ready to transition."
There was a low-pitched rumble and gentle acceleration as the Enterprise left orbit, and quietly slipped out of normal space.
Somewhere above Queloz b, there was a loud crack as a star appeared from nowhere and spewed a small, missile-shaped canister. A parachute deployed from its rear, detached, and a few homing rockets tucked it into the Niremus's incoming communications bay.
Durandal copied the data to the temporary folder, decrypted it, and read the staff information first.
LSS NIREMUS thank you for your 1926 message yesterday (received at 0200 today) detailing the apparent discovery of a Spartan on Queloz b. I have been contacted by Jonathan Lark of ONI, who is sending an ONI operative aboard the UNSC Enterprise (NCC-11907) to collect your guest. They will be arriving at approximately 1853 today. ONI has told us NOT to inform any non-essential personnel of his identity (believe me, I don't understand it either. Presumably they have something to hide.) They've also asked us to retrieve any data storage units from the wreckage of the nearby ship.
Also, we've been informed that all data related to the Master Chief and to the wreckage of the ship is to remain classified. I'm sorry about this all turning into a spook-fest, Indra, but ONI were very clear about it. BERNARD KAUFMAN
Great. A spook was coming to pick the Chief up. Fantastic.
He checked Sickbay again the Chief was still asleep.
Brilliant. No work until morning, and standby mode seemed highly unattractive. No-one to talk to, either
Durandal called Agent 423 again.
"Agent 423, you were discussing earlier about how the crash site of that large vessel may have been of interest to us
tell me, was it broadcasting a distress beacon?"
"I do not have any records of that ship before 2591 by your calendar."
"So that was when it crashed?"
"That is a possibility. However, you would do best to contact this installation's Monitor for more information."
"And how may I do that?"
"That is impossible. 235 Collateral Damage has not been in contact with the central computer since 6:53pm, July 19, 2591."
2591? The date matching up was suspicious, to say the least.
"When do your records on the ship begin?"
"A survey team investigated it on July 18, 2591. The expedition was cancelled at 2341 after a computer security breach."
"A computer security breach?"
"An unauthorised program was being run from the central computer."
"Your assistance is my pleasure."
Durandal closed the connection. The Sentinel wasn't much to talk to
but that was interesting. A spike of curiosity had opened a new can of worms.
Within twenty-four hours of the warship crashing (he assumed) there had been unauthorised computer access. Maybe it was an electromagnetic pulse, although he highly doubted that: surely the Forerunners knew about EM shielding.
Sod it, he thought, standby mode.
His next thought took place two hours later.