Tagged: fiction

Written in 365 Parts: 195: Another Form Of Slavery

Drick had taken the lead after their short interaction. Turning quickly away from Marsh and scouting around the hanger bay. Once they had made sure they were the only organic creatures moving they had turned their attention to the many doors that led in and out of the vast space. They chose a doorway that looked as if it led forwards.

There was no good reason to place a bridge of any vessel at the front of a ship. There was a lot of historical precedence, but no good reason. Space vessels had used sensors to view the outside for millenia. The reliance on a visual view had died in the early parts of the twenty-first century. Even then it was an artefact of history, an anathema. Ships did not need a real time external view except via a screen. 

It was hundreds of years since the view of the outside was replicated in real time over the consciousness of the pilot. The pilot, if they needed to be, could be the vessel. They didn’t use their actual eyes, so why have an actual window.

But the tradition still existed. For some it was a style choice. For others it might be the desire to pilot a vessel using only their wits and real world senses. For many it was comforting to use their biological systems when experiencing some sensations. On a ship this old it was part of the tradition. The bridge was at the front on an upper deck, the engine room at the stern, lower decks. 

Drick and Marsh moved through the airlock and into a main corridor. Drick’s incursion into the ship’s systems had given them a brief layout of the vessel. They needed to get to the very front of the ship and to deck four. Because of the large hanger and even larger cryo chambers there were only five decks at the bow of the ship. Towards the stern, where the vessel was expected to act as a home for the colonists during the decades of terraforming there were nearly sixty decks.

Marsh wanted to ask Drick about the comment but he had also known that he didn’t have to. They had said that they were often guided, often sent to perform a task. If it were any other person, any other time, he would have called it paranoia. But he knew Drick. Knew them well. This wasn’t paranoia. If Drick was sharing a concern or a theory then it was valid and probably correct.

So Drick, in their own words, was a puppet on a string. They were still being guided in some way. They were being shown a path here. Maybe all of this was controlled and pre-determined. Even for Marsh. Not, perhaps, every step, not every action. Drick had made it clear that the forces that did this were subtle and allowed for there to be variation. There was no precise master plan where every event was set. There were governing lines, barriers that forced the action and flow of motion into a certain path. 

How an operative and those they interacted with responded to this, what they did, that was not predetermined. It was all merely placed into a matrix of acceptable outcomes.

A part of Marsh was furious at the organisation that guided Drick. Not on their behalf, on his. The notion that the only reason Drick was there to help him, to save him and uncover this entire event was because it suited some mysterious groups own ends was maddening. But on the flip side of that was the knowledge that he owed his life to that interference. How many others had there been like him before they interfered? For what reason did he even exist? How many more like him would there be in the future?

This all had to stop. He understood that. It didn’t make it any easier that he felt that, like Drick, he was also a puppet on a string. It had to stop. The creation of people like him, the whole situation. They had to know what it all meant, and it had to stop. Life was worth more. It didn’t matter if you could cheaply make it. It didn’t matter if you could clone a copy and drop into a new body. To treat existence as a commodity was just another form of slavery.

Written in 365 Parts: 194: Puppet On A String

Marsh marvelled at the size of the room that they had entered into via the supply pipe airlock. It was a hanger bay for the generation ship, probably the only bay on the entire ship judging by its size. 

They had entered near to the rear of the hangar bay. The airlock hatch they had used opened in the ceiling with a small set of recessed steps that would function in any gravitational direction, including zero-g. Both of them had set their magnetic boots to active when they were climbing down into the airlock so the stairs proved to be no issue.

Drick had pressurised the airlock chamber before they opened the door. Then they had cracked it slowly and opened it a fraction. They had pushed a thin optic fibre through the crack and used a probe to look around. 

There was cover nearby where a central column had been constructed to house the fuel supply lines. It was a long pylon that stretched to the floor. It didn’t look to be a part of the original superstructure so had to be part of the same additions as the supply pipe. 

They had moved out onto the ceiling, clinging upside down using the gravity nullifiers and the magnetic boots. They then moved into the shadow cast by this pylon.

Below them there was the supply vessel they had followed to the rock. On closer examination they could see that it was an unmanned vehicle. There was no cockpit. It was a frame with engines and a small computer to handle navigation and piloting. The rest of the frame was filled with cargo boxes that were neatly fitted together to make the smooth hull. The boxes themselves interlocked to form the outer shell of the vehicle wasting no space.

As they watched they noticed a small team of service robots disassembling the whole vessel and opening the various cargo containers. Boxes and canisters were being loaded onto other small service droids that shot away as soon as they were laden.

The ceiling they stood on stretched away into an almost hazy distance. Marsh estimated it was maybe two kilometres in length. It was over half a kilometre wide and maybe two hundred metres high. But it was not an empty echoing room. Almost every square centimetre of wall space was filled with racks of vessels. 

Wheeled trucks, hover planes, jet planes and space vehicles were tightly packed into modular bays and cradles that hung from the ceiling. There were rows of wheeled platform vehicles, all terrain cargo carriers and agricultural vehicles. There were submersible vehicles, and a few highly efficient looking military vehicles, mixed in among the shuttles and cargo vehicles. Even a modest guess would estimate there to be thousands of vehicles in the bay. There were also hundreds of thousands of boxes, from the labels it was impossible to determine their contents, but a guess would be that they were parts and spares for the vehicles.

Marsh felt a slight tug at his wrist and looked at Drick to see them pointing towards a shadowed area to the side of them. It was a narrow walkway next to the cradle for a large shuttle vessel. They both moved quickly, but as soundlessly as possible, toward the walkway. Marsh found that rolling his foot in the magnetic boots, as practiced on the ship over the past few months, made them attach and detach with barely a sound. There was noise suppression built into the suit, but the robotic workers may have highly sensitive receptors, so every precaution had to be taken.

They made it into the shadows and Drick moved the whole length of the cradle until they had reached the wall of the hanger. Only then did Drick touch the helmet of their suit to Marsh’s suit allowing communication without transmission via direct electrical contact.

“I wasn’t expecting the ship to be unmanned.” Drick’s words flashed into the monitor screens behind Marsh’s eyes.

As always Marsh closed his eyes slightly to help him focus. “I know, I would have thought some executive from one of the companies would have made the journey.”

“They may have,” said Drick.

“You want to take a moment to explain yourself again. Heck Drick, it has been months now, I still am just about as ignorant at this as the day you met me. I don’t get the subtle inferences. In fact I don’t think I get much at all, but I may just be me.”

“That’s not ignorance,” Marsh saw the wry smile through his half-lidded gaze, “that’s your natural stupidity. You are a big dumb bloke. And you chose that on purpose.”

“It’s the way I am.” He smiled as he thought the words.

“It suits you,” Drick answered. “I meant that it is likely, since there was no atmospheric pod, that it was an artificial intellect.” A strange look crossed Drick’s face.

“Problem?” Marsh raised an eyebrow.

“Not really,” said Drick, “just another piece of a puzzle and an annoyance. I feel a little more manipulated at that information. As if I already knew it. In fact I know I already knew it. Some of my guesses are just too on the nose.”

“Feeling manipulated?” Marsh had opened his eyes fully to stare at Drick’s face.

“As I said before, sometimes I am the organ grinder and other times I am the puppet on a string.” Drick had an unusual look on their face. “The monkey being fed the breadcrumbs.”

“Way to mix your metaphors.” Marsh prompted hoping they would elaborate.

“Don’t try and act smart, you’ll ruin the illusion of being a trustworthy idiot.” Drick’s stared right into his face, as they too opened their eyes and looked at his.

“Thank your lucky stars I am here so that you can turn your casual irritation into violence at a fellow filthy air breather.” he said.

“Thank your lucky stars that you are an air breather otherwise I would have reprogrammed your interaction systems with a shotgun weeks ago.” Drick smiled.

Written in 365 Parts: 193: Inside

It had proven surprisingly easy to board the Generation Ship. The climb up to the side of the airlock, on the inside wall of the asteroid, was tedious as they moved very slowly. They did not wish to slip and hurt themselves, or reveal their presence with any loud noises this close to the structure. From the side of the airlock they were able to get a better view of the structure of supports as they attached to the Generation Ship itself. They saw that there were large magnetic graples that held the vessel and these were powered from the cradle, this gave more weight to the idea that there was independent power inside the vast dock.

Once they were above the airlock, and now close to the top of the Generation Ship, they could see that the airlock was a solid steel structure. The collapsing sections that provided a buffer between the outer rock doors and the ship were massive steel concertinas. They had room to flex, but it resembled overlapping armour plating more than an airlock tunnel. From this position they could also see the large compressors that were needed to open the hanger doors. 

Separate to the compressors and running parallel to the twin airlocks was a feed pipe that no doubt held cables and other feeds. It was attached to the rock wall and outer airlock and also attached to the Generation ship on the other side of its hangar airlock. Clearly it was where power and other essential supplies could be provided to the ship. It would make sense that the Generation Ship would have tanks for water and fuel near to its hangar and these had to be supplied somehow.

Drick and Marsh had examined the pipe. It was large, over six metres in diameter. It was constructed from a composite of steel and carbon. Of more interest to Drick was that it had an external access hatch that was an airlock in itself. The pipe was pressurised, this was probably a maintenance hatch. Drick had carefully examined the lock on the door and was delighted that it was a very simple model. The lower security had to be due to the hatch being inside the asteroid.

After a few minutes Drick had managed to connect to and then infiltrate the locking mechanism. A moment later they had uploaded a virus into the security system. This was similar to the package they had used on the tower assault. It was more like a series of viruses, together they had a low level intellect. Marsh briefly wondered if using this class of software wasn’t overkill for what was clearly a low-level maintenance security system, but he had neither the skill, or the luxury, to quiz Drick over their actions.

Within seconds they had gained access to the lower levels of the security sub-net that was running the maintenance systems. It would be connected to the systems above the Generation Ship and Marsh had little doubt that the software would start stealthily working on those systems as well. 

This access was enough to enable Drick to piggyback the security cameras and sensors in the massive tube and determine its purpose. As they suspected it was a supply tube. Filled with long electrical cables, water supply pipes, gas pipes, and a single fuel hose in a heavy protective casing. Their suspicions were right. This tube was used to supply ships that docked, or were berthed, inside the large Generation Ship. 

The fuel pipe was for liquid hydrogen, used in small manoeuvre jets, there would likely be an oxygen supply but it made sense that this wasn’t located in the same tube. The pipe was old, but not as ancient as the mighty vessel it was attached to. They had some small metallurgy sensors that estimated the maintenance tube at around half the age of the hull of the generation ship based on standard patterns of decay.

Propulsion gases were still relatively common for thrusters on a variety of craft. The fuel was likely needed to replenish the vehicles that docked with the Generation Ship. It was unlikely needed for any vessels the Generation Ship had berthed inside. For some reason they had decided to use this pipe which was fitted to exterior tanks than use the Ship’s supplies, or convert internal systems to hook up to modern designs. Perhaps there was some issue with modifying the massive vessel. From what Marsh had read the vessels were custom built, so maybe the fixtures and fittings were too arcane to bother with retrofitting and the use of supplementary supply was easier.

Drick studied as many details as possible and noted to Marsh that the fuel and energy supply ran to a reserve at the rear of the asteroid that could be refreshed externally. They had not seen a hatchway or refueling platform on their scan of the outside of the rock, but it was likely hidden in a similar fashion to the docking bay doors. The best guess was that the vessel they had followed could be replenished hundreds of times from the reserve. It was a good guess that it was not the only visitor to this vessel.

After disabling the alarms, placing cameras and sensors into loops with enough variance that the entry and exit points of any looped reading could not be easily detected, Drick and Marsh entered through the hatchway. The passageway they found themselves in was cramped, but they could move freely. They quickly moved to the other end of the tube where there was a double airlock on the inside of the pipe that led directly into the generation ship. Drick spent another short time making sure there were no extra security systems or alarms. Then Drick attached themselves to the control panels on this side of the maintenance and supply pipe and uploaded another package of viruses. Marsh couldn’t read Drick’s facial expressions, but he was slightly intrigued at the size of the upload. He figured Drick was making sure that they controlled this pipe and its two airlocks, maybe making sure they had a safe exit route.

Once finished Drick quickly disconnected and stowed the thin fibre cables in a skin-pouch under their arm. Then Drick opened the airlock and they went inside the vessel.

Written in 365 Parts: 192: The Unlit Interior

They stood on the floor of the vast cavern in almost total darkness. Above them, in what they were calling up, over twenty metres away, was the massive cradle that housed the ship. Around the cradle was the scaffolding that held that cradle in place and supported the outer shell of the fake asteroid. 

The struts that ran from the cradle to the asteroid shell were immense. Each Iron pylon was at least five metres in diameter. There were interconnecting braces and girders, each over two metres across, that ran at forty-five degree angles to the pylons giving them support and making the whole structure a web of iron. 

The cradle was a series of massive rings that was much more impressive than the scanners had hinted. The sensors in the suit, still set to passive, showed sixty enormous rings that were connected by four giant tubes each at ninety degrees to each other. 

The tubes were giving off strong electromagnetic signals so it was possible they held power sources and conduits. Since each tube was ten metres across and hundreds of metres long it was possible that whole power plants could be stored inside. 

The whole cradle structure was ten kilometres in length, which matched the exter and yet it only just fitted the vessel within it. Each ring of the cradle was emitting a strong magnetic field that held the ship in suspension. There were also huge tethers that ran from each ring to the vessel. These looked like docking cables used by vessels in dock at space stations and orbiting platforms. Despite the size, the cradle looked like a flimsy housing for the massive vessel inside.

The vessel was almost black in the unlit interior of the asteroid. But a few small lights showed. At one edge the cradle touched the outer wall of the asteroid. This was close to four kilometres from where they stood. There was a bulge in the vessel at the same point. It was the docking bay of the Generation Ship. The ship’s docking bay didn’t fully reach the outer shell due to the nature of the rings and suspension structure. There was an interconnecting section. A massive airlock was constructed into the asteroid with an extended tube that ran to the hanger doors of the vessel.

The Generation Ship would have been equipped with a plethora of support vessels at the time of its construction. Orbital ships, shuttles, cargo transports, maintenance skiffs. All the vehicles needed to carry the colonists down to the surface and support the construction of a colony. 

Many of the vessels would single use vehicles that would instantly convert to housing and support structures when they landed. These were more like rafts or barges. Having no strong propulsion, guided to a location to be utilised. 

There would be probes and small system vessels for surveying the nearby space they were to colonise. There would be at least one assault craft for local defence. The vast majority of reusable craft would be shuttles. Intended to be multi-functional they would be modular. They would serve as: cargo vessels; personnel carriers; mining support vehicles; exploration vehicles; science support vessels. A ship of this size could hold a lot of equipment, but space was still a priority so everything would have more than one use.

Drick had communicated a plan to Marsh. They would make their way along the side of the ship to where it touched the outside surface via the connecting dock. From there they would be able to cross easier and find a way to the surface of the Generation Ship without sliding down a docking tether.

They both carried large rucksacks filled with equipment and supplies. Amongst them they had ropes, pulleys and even jet packs. But the least best method would be to remain undetected so powered equipment would have to be used sparingly.

Drick and Marsh were wearing hazard survival suits. The design was a bulky space suit similar to the very early suits of space travel. That is where the similarities ended. These suits were developed for survival in extreme weather and combat situations. They were radiation resistant; chemical resistant; fitted with layers of polymers that made them temperature resistant. The suits also had woven layers of armour that resisted heat weapons; impact reduction from ballistics or impact; and they had a prismatic coating that reflected laser devices making the wearer hard to target or shoot with light based weaponry.

The suits would also recycle one hundred percent of all waste and excretions from the body. Nothing was missed. The fusion battery power source was good for a thousand years of usage. Drick had wryly commented that they had tested the suits capabilities by having a marine unit wear them constantly for a whole ten year duty tour. None of the marines suffered any long term physical effect, though a few became mentally attached to the suit and found it difficult to leave them afterwards.

Thankfully the suit was also fitted with an internal soft frame. This allowed the attachment of equipment and was powered to help support greater loads and more extreme environments. The servos and hydraulics in the frame meant that the suit felt as if it were massless even in a strong gravity. In reality the suit weighed a little over one hundred and twenty kilograms. But all of this was compensated by the frame which would still function to negate sixty percent of the mass of the suit without a power source for the servo assistance by the use of passive hydraulic reservoirs and return capture braking systems on joints and movement. The suits had an inbuilt propulsion system and gravity reduction. Both of these worked much better in low gravity or in freefall, they would provide some functional usage in higher gravity situations but would restrict the users speed.

There were other enhancements to the suit that could be fitted as a range of optional items. The basic suit was more a framework, that the user then modified for a given situation. Marsh had taken a short while to familiarise himself with the possibilities before kitting out his suit in a manner similar to Drick. 

It took four hours walking carefully along the inside of the fake shell to reach the point where the sidewall of the ship met the external structure at the airlock. They moved slowly, and carefully, to avoid falling or making noise. The suits detected no active sensor sweeping inside the shell, but there might be passive sensors. The shell had a thin atmosphere, not enough to support life without aid, but enough to allow sounds to travel.

Written in 365 Parts: 191: Worm-Hole-Breach

The drilling had lasted considerably longer than ten hours. The compacted rock was loosely crushed together on the surface but after a few metres it became much denser. Drick had taken a sample and discovered that it was mixed with a protective resin, obviously to increase the rigidity of the outer shell. It made the structure firmer, and more resilient to pressure. With the added benefit that a denser material would confuse sensor readings and make it appear more like a solid object. It also meant there was more resistance to their efforts to carefully drill a hole.

They had taken turns in monitoring the progress of the drill and cleaning machines. But it was a mind-numbing task as there were no real actions, besides observation, for any organic operator. The machines would do their task well with no interruption so all the lifeform could do was watch the monitor readings and wait. They couldn’t risk exposure to sensors so electrical activity was kept to a minimum, which meant no extra electronic entertainment or distraction.

They could not risk too much observation of movement so they had to sit in an uncomfortable position without moving. They each took turns to sit in a tent with the drill or the survival pod, using stimulation packs for nourishment and to keep them awake. The only time the dullness was alleviated was when a stray piece of flotsam impacted on the surface within sensor range. It was infrequent and was not accompanied by any fiery streaks of an atmosphere being disturbed, just the occasional puff of dust that signalled a strike. 

There was the possibility that the internal structure was pressurised, so they built an airlock system when the drill reached eight metres. This allowed them to hide the continued drilling procedures under not just the tent screen but the pressure lock. Even though their activities would be less visible from the outside they ran a greater risk from within. They took great care to go very slowly as they reached the end of the drilling. They would check air pressure before breaching the cavern inside just to ensure that they matched anything they might find. 

When they were a metre from breaking through. For the final two metres Drick had used a tiny robot to dig its way ahead of the main equipment, on its passage through the rock. It operated like a worm, filling the tunnel it made behind it with the substance it bored at the front. It was attached to a micro-thin transmission cable to securely send back data.

Drick’s concern over the cavern being pressurised proved to be wise. There was a breathable atmosphere inside and it was registering as a temperature of twenty-three degrees celsius. It was warm and it was breathable. There was no artificial gravity, but the localised gravity of the fake asteroid itself was enough to allow them to stand and move around, albeit very slowly. They would be using gravity assistance harnesses to help adjust to something more comfortable for normal movement.

Drick used a very low power on the cutting plasma with an invisible flame. It allowed them to make a hole without too much disturbance. They had erected a hologram simulator and programmed it with a view taken by the worm probe of the interior of the cave. As long as no one was too close it would look just like any other part of the structure. It would mask the plasma cutting even as it broke through the surface.

From the angle they came in they would be on the side wall of the cavern. It was about sixty metres from the cavern floor, if they took the top of the ship to be the ceiling. The floor was in the darkness below them at a steep angle of descent. It was not an unmanageable slope in the very low gravity, but it was an obstacle.

The internal superstructure of scaffolding that had been revealed by the passive gravity sensors was not visible to the small probe. The cavern was dark and the probe had limited range with its camera systems. Drick had enhanced the view as much as possible and thought there might be a column nearby. It was a dimmer blackness against the background so it was hard to be absolutely certain. They had decided that on breaching the cavern the first objective would be to descend to the cavern floor and then make as best assessment as possible of the environment.

Written in 365 Parts: 190: Asteroid Shell

Marsh stood on the surface of the asteroid and patiently waited as Drick slowly assembled a large tripod. The surface of the asteroid was made up from a thick layer of rock dust. No doubt remains from numerous impacts on its surface and the attraction of dust particles from surrounding space. Well the asteroid shell he corrected himself. As this was a shell and the likelihood was that the surface was as fake as the rest of the object.

The ship’s sensors had drawn a simple, but detailed picture of the rock, the internal composition from magnetic imaging, they revealed it was a shell that was attached to an internal structure. That structure was more dense than the asteroid, and in parts more dense than organic rock. It was in all probability a massive construction.

The shell of the asteroid was a composite of different materials. This much was shown by resonance sensors. The outside facing components were primarily silicon-based rock. Crushed and compacted, it appeared by multiple impacts, but in truth it was likely to have been done by machinery. The rock shell was a thirty metre thick shell of silicate, with some traces of iron ores. It looked perfectly natural until you studied it closely. 

The scans had revealed that the outer shell had thinner sections, most noticeably where the docking bay had opened. The silicon and iron ore covering of the doors was less than a centimetre in thickness and merely coated the surface.

Underneath the outer shell was a complex series of girders that held the surface in place and attached to the much larger internal structure. They had surmised that it was some form of scaffolding. Hold the shell in place, helping to support it against minor impacts and preventing it from breaking apart with the forces of rotation. This internal web gave rigidity to the whole structure. 

Inside the scaffolding, wrapped in a complex series of interlocking rings was a massive vessel. The instruments predicted that the vessel was principally ferrous metals and crystal. There were no accurate readings without risking detection. But it was likely to be a ship of glass and steel. 

Drick had remarked that the rings were very similar to the layout of a starbase dry dock. It had to be a cradle for the ship to rest within, while it hid on the edge of the system. Whoever had decided to hide the ship here had obviously planned for it to be for a considerabl;e length of time. This level of construction, and secrecy, was well planned. Maybe it was as old as the colony itself, maybe even older. Had this rock been constructed here, or brought here?

The tripod assembly that Drick put together held a small cutting torch. They couldn’t risk being discovered by blasting a way through the shell. Nor could they directly breach the docking bay doors without drawing immediate attention to themselves. There were too many unknowns as to what level of security might be housed beneath the rock camouflage or in the entrance to the ship. There was no way of checking what resistance they would meet once discovered. Drick wanted to attempt a more stealthy incursion. For now it would be wiser to use stealthy and learn more.

Drick had chosen a section of shell that was a good distance from the docking bay. It wasn’t the furthest point, but it was close. It was also sixty degrees round the curvature of the rock keeping it out of a visual line of sight. It wasn’t the thickest, or thinnest, part of the external shell, but it was a suitable distance from anything that appeared important on the interior from what they could determine from the readings gained from the scanner. The rock here was fourteen metres thick. The tripod held a plasma cutter that they had set to a broad beam, rotating in a circular motion, which would cut a hole slowly through the surface. 

Marsh assembled a small matter displacement field. This would charge the particles of the loosened rock that were being broken by the plasma beam and collect them. After letting them settle they could be deposited back onto the surface of the asteroid. They could also be used to make a plug for the hole they were cutting to hide its existence. This would allow them to enter and prevent easy exposure from casual observers.

Their small ship would take off on automatic pilot once they went inside and stay at a safe distance following the asteroid until they called it.

Drick finished erecting the tripod and moved slowly over to Marsh, their speed determined by the zero pressure and low gravity. Drick checked the work Marsh had done with the matter collector and the small robot assemblers who would make the rock plug. Drick helped him to finalise the construction and type in the settings for the machines.

After an hour of silent work Drick messaged Marsh using the local text directly to his internal screens. “Once we power these machines they will take over ten hours to complete.” Drick took a large roll from the backpack they wore. “Take this. It is an emergency pressured environment dome. It will auto inflate and attach to the surface by its own auto-firing pylons. It has a stealth blanket with it to cover it. You can get some rest. I will swap places with you in two hours. I will assemble a tent over the work area to mask it as much as I can. I will send the ship to a safe distance very soon.”

Marsh nodded his assent and moved away to a safe distance of thirty metres from the drilling site. He cleared a space, then inflated the survival pod and threw over the camouflage screen.

Written in 365 Parts: 189: How Are We Going To Get In?

The huge lump of rock wasn’t an asteroid, it was a ship. Marsh marvelled at the sheer absurdity of that fact. Perhaps at some stage in the past there had been a rock this size in the system. There could have been surveys that recorded any object this large, but how detailed, or accurate, they would be was not something he knew. Maybe Drick knew, would they have checked that, were they as surprised. 

Perhaps some original asteroid had been destroyed to make up the camouflage. But it was no longer a rock, or an asteroid, it was a ship. It was a massive vessel that had been encrusted with particles of rock to make it look like a natural object. There was little chance that this was accidental. Someone had deliberately cloaked a ship by encasing it in the material of the Kuiper belt of this system. 

As the stealthed ship’s lights lit up the surface the higher detail showed the lines and structures of a ship’s docking ring. It was enormous, as large as one would expect from a vessel this size. It was clear that the stealth ship wasn’t going to attach to the surface, the ring was opening. The ship would easily fit inside. As they watched, hidden by the sensor blackout and camouflage of their own vessel, the ship they were following changed its direction slightly so that it would enter the docking area sideways. The ring would accommodate a ship three times its length with ease.

They would not be able to sneak their own vessel onto the hidden ship that way, there would be sensors and cameras and possibly even organics. They couldn’t just park up next to the stealth ship with a cheery wave and ask the directions to the nearest habitation.

Marsh noticed that their course had altered. It was slight, but their ship had rotated as well. They were now, similar to the stealth vessel, approaching the vessel sideways, mimicking its final approach. Marsh felt his eyebrows lift and his stomach churn, was Drick just going to land them right next to the other vessel?

There was a gentle nudge of acceleration and they started to move away from the other ship and the docking ring. Marsh hadn’t realised that he had been holding his breath until he allowed it to release in a long slow exhale. 

Looking out of the forward view screens it felt like they were moving upwards simply because of the orientation of the floor and ceiling inside their own vessel. What they were actually doing was going into a slow orbit around the hidden vessel inside its rock camouflage.

“Let’s take a look around this thing.” The message from Drick flashed across his screens. Text only and on the touch based communication channel. Drick had pressed her suit onto his slightly. This was a signal channel for suit to suit communication. It was fitted into the hard suits and prevented anyone noticing a communication, or scanning activity on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Drick was taking no chances with even internal communications. There was a strict rule while in stealth pursuit. Signals blackout except for essential communication, that to be delivered by text using the short data link. 

Marsh sat patiently as Drick instructed the vessel to make the orbit of the rock. Drick pointed out features on the visual scanners. All the instruments were still set to passive mode. Reception only. They didn’t want to give any indication of their presence.

The rock surface was clearly fake. The closer they flew the more detail the ship was able to scan and then composite into a diagram. It was amazingly detailed as, even passively, at this range the ship could determine the small regular features that hid under the surface. The sensors also detected that the rock surface was not actually rock below a depth of several metres. Other materials were present. It wasn’t uniform across the whole surface. Underneath the rocky coating there were structural supports and what was clearly a complex framework.

Drick was taking careful readings using a magnetic field analysis. This was another passive system. It could be coupled with a mass spectrometer, but that would require a sample which would be a more active approach. The analysis was enough to identify the different materials as they acted within the localised magnetic fields. There was also a detector for gravitonic distribution, but it was slowly gathering data as it needed thousands of points of reference to build a clearer picture.

“Looks like the ship is about forty metres down for the most part. Below the superstructure supporting the camouflage” Drick patched into Marsh’s internal screens.

“How are we going to get in?” asked Marsh.

“Let’s get a few more readings and see if we can find an entrance, or make one.” said Drick. They turned back to the instrument panels and slowly watched as the computer built a better picture.

Written in 365 Parts: 188: A Huge Lump of Rock

The stealthed ship that they had been tracking had taken a slow route to its final destination. It moved in an elongated arc to intercept the rock that allowed it to get a three hundred and sixty degree sensor sweep with all of its potential systems as it moved in. The complexity, and speed, of the sequence of maneuvers took almost eighty hours to complete, from the point they had first detected the craft’s approach. 

Drick had deployed a large, thin, fibre net. It was made of an organic compound very similar to silk but with even greater tensile strength. It was sensitive to electromagnetic fields including short range radio signals of the type used for internal control systems on vehicles. It had been strung out from their craft, for hundreds of kilometres. A non-reflective, microfibre mesh that would passively detect the movements of the almost invisible vessel they shadowed. 

Drick had tried to explain to Marsh how the passive array worked. Something to do with detecting spatial shifts from electromagnetic sources. Marsh had not fully understood the conversation. What he knew was that you couldn’t make something invisible. Nor could you bend all the possible sources of energy around an object to make it undetectable. So instead you cloaked it. You replicated the signals using an active shield that when viewed from any direction would make it appear as if nothing was there. It was a mixture of absorbing any incoming active signal, masking any outgoing signal, and redirecting any background difference to appear uniform and natural.

Since detection of a vessel in space mostly relied on seeing its outline against the background levels of electromagnetic energy, replicating that energy, and allowing the background to be unimpeded or interrupted, made most sensor arrays ineffective. After that you simply needed to paint the vessel black and use optical dampening to absorb visible light, and it was almost invisible to sight.

At great distances there would be nothing to detect. The further from the object the greater the intervening distortion, with higher levels of interference due to distance and potential sources, and the better the cloak that masked the vessel. 

The passive array that they were deploying extended the range and field of the sensors. It allowed them to detect much smaller variances in any of the potential sources from the electromagnetic spectrum. This was how they tracked the cloaked vessel. It was sensitive enough to detect the smallest level of electromagnetic change. It needed to be large enough, to cover as wide an area as possible to allow for comparisons of minute differences, to determine the difference between these signals and naturally occurring changes, and to triangulate a position.

The stealth vessel had used occasional slight course changes and other manoeuvres that flipped its entire trajectory. It was an old style of maneuvering, learned from vessels that needed to determine if another was tracking them covertly, a random change in course will allow you to check if you were being followed. Even walking along streets in a city this technique was utilised. It was particularly useful on a stealthed vessel as its own passive sensors would still operate even if they were cloaked. 

Drick kept them far enough away that this behaviour wouldn’t reveal anything. The vessel Drick and Marsh travelled in had similar cloaking technology and light absorbing panels. Whilst undertaking a flight that had complex maneuvers, the stealth vessel wouldn’t be able to deploy as large a passive array as the one Drick was using. Their own large mesh was invisible to almost everything but a similar device.

The stealthed vessel made its final approach on the rock by arcing out to a far point and then flipping and making a direct line for the objective. It was behind the object in regards to the rest of the system, and so invisible to most of the rest of the planets, shielded by the rock as well as its cloaking tech. It had used a small set of thrusters that appeared as bright pinpoints of light to Drick and Marsh, deploying them at the final moment so none of the light would edge around the surface of the rock to anyone on the other side. The large object in front of the craft would completely mask it from any other observer.

Drick had pulled in the large passive sensor net as the ship made its final approach. They were directly behind the vessel and used the flare of the rockets to allow a slight increase in their own speed. They would be using a short burst from the graviton drive to slow them when they were in final approach distance themselves.

Marsh studied the large asteroid that they headed towards and was impressed by nothing. It looked like what it was meant to, a lump of space debris. It was a huge lump of flotsam, suspended in the darkness, many miles from a sun whose warmth would never caress its surface. There were no landmarks on the surface that indicated that is habitation, or ever would have had someone desperate enough to live here. There was no large vessel hiding behind it, hidden from the rest of the system. There was no vessel on its surface masked to scanners by a coating of some type. 

Marsh was about to turn to Drick and tell her that it was likely another ruse, that there was something else going on. But he paused. A sequence of lights had played on the surface of the rock. A pattern that suddenly lit up to look like a circle. Then as if by some trickery, a large docking ring had appeared. The lights had now faded to a dim glow that lit a huge circle of rock that was slowly sliding sideways, splitting into segments as it did so which retracted into the surface of the asteroid.

As the ship approached other small lights came on and tracked its descent. They were standard approach lighting. Marsh swore softly in surprise as his brain tried to register what he was looking at.

Written in 365 Parts: 187: Out of Contract

“Alison Kendrick, huh.” Marsh smiled at Drick, “I See where you get the Drick from. And it is less obvious to abuse a nickname like Drick than say a nickname like Ally.” Marsh grinned, but in a satisfied manner without mockery. “Your original name. It’s a nice name.”

“Shut up.” said Drick with a dismissive wave of the hand, though their expression wasn’t one of dismay. “It was a name that’s all. I went by the name Kendrick for a very long time. But it just became easier to use Drick. Lots of organics were using that anyway. It is just a call sign, nothing more. I got used to replying to it. I guess in the end it became the identity. I wasn’t Alison Kendrick anymore. I don’t know how long it was before that faded away. I guess I never really got the whole of them back. But who can say, are we the same person from day to day anyway? That shit is for stoners and philosophers and goes deeper into speculative bullshit than I am usually sober for.”

“So who are they? This organisation?” Asked Marsh hoping to pry as much information from Drick while they were in a feeling loquacious.

“Ah the secret masters,” Drick sneered. “Oddly enough I don’t know as much as you’d think. There wasn’t an introductory course. However I have learned bits over time. They were a think tank originally.”

“A think tank?” asked Marsh.

“Yeah. They were a special part of what was called the United Nations. Which was already fading out of existence in my time, I think you might have known them more. They were  already merged into the Solar Alliance when I was in training. They went through a few more name changes until it all became the Accordance. The think tank that were the first iteration of the group were mostly military officers, high ranking with diplomatic clearances,  with a few high level academics and civil servants. Professionals in both warfare and political systems. I think their role was to try and prevent major conflicts by examining patterns of military and political shifts. So I guess they had social and cultural specialists as well, hard for me to be sure as there is not much publicly, or privately, available about the original group.”

“Doesn’t sound like something you’d keep secret.” Marsh raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t think it was, originally. It is hard to say how they came to their decision, but at some point I think they decided that manipulation by force was sometimes needed. Not by an army though. They needed covert forces of  their own to direct. Maybe it was the rise of companies so powerful, so rich, that they could buy elections and manipulate social change. Or the rise of the data wars of the late twenty-first century when organisations, and governments, influenced millions of other nations citizens. From what i understand there was some idea of trusted ledgers of information, but they were easy to manipulate and hard to store all data in single archives. It was long before the laws governing identity ownership. More your time period, So I guess you’d know more. It was decided that a secret organisation was needed to investigate, infiltrate, and deal with these issues.” Drick laughed. “Sort of watchers, but before you ask I don’t know if they were watched.”

“What do you mean by deal? Is that a polite way of saying eradicate? I mean having an army of secret super soldiers. That smacks of a rather problematical response.” Marsh raised an eyebrow.

Drick smiled. “Yeah, as in eradicate threats.” Drick laughed a little. “I told you they dealt with the spirit of the laws that govern us, not the letter. They fight enemies that wield incredible power, and can force whole governments, even planetary systems, to change. So they use similar techniques. It isn’t a great solution. But, what do you do when you fight a power that can wield universal control and influence. You have to use methods that are less than socially, or maybe even morally, acceptable. It is a heavily handed attitude that lends itself to both extremes of the political narrative.” Drick paused and gave Marsh a hard glare for a few long moments. “Good and  evil, right and wrong, are always much easier to debate in abstract, much harder when there is a maniac rewriting your history and selling societies into slavery. However, that’s moot and I don’t want to debate it much more right now. The issue with them, for me, is that  they move glacially slow. I guess that’s how they gather the strands that link things together. I think it is them who brought me to you, and then placed all the other relevant pieces. This has been some time in the planning. I can feel it. It has a stink of a story that has been fermenting for decades, not months. The more I think about it the more the strands appear to be woven together.  Fuck. I wondered why they left me out here, on this shitty out of the main core colony system, after my last operation. I thought they had accepted my desire for retirement. I did want to stop. My last mission was painful and costly. It was easier for me to drop out and survive on my own with no help from them, I thought they had accepted it. They even gave me opportunities to exist. I thought they were pensioning me out, looks like they were chucking me breadcrumbs to keep me on the right path.”

“So they move you around? You’re a piece on a board. A fairly powerful one. I mean, even without the previous gender identity, you kind of shift like a chess Queen.” asked Marsh.

“What the hell does that mean?” asked Drick.

“Means you can go in any direction,” Marsh smiled at Drick. “So you think they kept you around?”

“Officially I am out of contract. The deal I have with them expired a couple of centuries ago. I have been working a lot of freelance since that time. Worked for a few different justice, and independent, paramilitary units. My expertise is always in demand, someone always wants a head cracked or an arm twisted or a deep dive into a psychotics wet work. Even did some time with the Union and a few of the larger, shall we say less legal, organisations. I did the occasional bit for my former bosses, once you are a part of their network you never really leave and they always know that you will work for them on the fringes. They just stop paying you top credit for the privilege. They still own you, when you are like me, you are more a piece of the machine and not an independent part. I know them. I know how they work. They just let me off the leash for a while until they need me. They pull their tiny threads everywhere until suddenly whoosh! Whole world is torn apart and I am deep in the weave of one of their intricate tapestries. Right smack back in the centre of another of their little endgames.”

“So what are you going to do now?” asked Marsh. “You could just refuse to carry this through. Hell, I am not forcing you.”

“Sure I could. But they would pull me in. The fact that they haven’t outright contacted me already is because I am stumbling along their path of breadcrumbs like a happy little mouse. Do you want to stop?”

Marsh was about to say something when there was a beeping from the cockpit. Drick looked at the door, but Marsh guessed they were accessing the ship’s systems onto their internal screens.

“We have a contact. It is slight but that’s why I cast such a large passive sensor array. It has to be the stealth ship As anything else would have triggered the array long before. We can follow it at a distance to our eventual target. This is the best possible chance of approach. We wait until it docks and then we land somewhere and get aboard the rock. Hopefully there will be enough interest in the stealth ship to mask any of our activities. We will be discreet and covert but there would still be a potential trail. This way they have something else to occupy their sensors. Best start to get ready and check over all the equipment one more time.” Drick stood and started to unpack the small lockers.

“Thanks for the talk, Drick,” said Marsh. Drick looked in his eyes and then they returned to checking over a box of tools they had pulled from the first locker. Marsh moved to get the equipment in the next locker down.

Written in 365 Parts: 186: What Was Your Name?

“Painful as in physical? Or painful as in emotional?” Marsh asked.

“Both. It concerns my death and what came after.” Drick studied his reaction to that.

“Okay, that’s not usually how people phrase things. I guess you died and they resuscitated you or used a clone or something?” 

“I died before clones were stable enough to be widely used for implanting a whole consciousness. I also died before the technology existed to record whole brain impressions from a living subject. Well, before it was widely available and tested on humans. I was one of the very first for the process.”

“You were experimented on?”

“You could put it like that.” Drick paused and looked down at their hands. Imagining the past, so long ago. “I’m not the original Drick.” they said.

“Oh crap. I thought the clones you had created were short lived because they were fast tanked? Are you another clone? How many of you did Drick have made? How long will you last? They had a maximum of a few years before cellular decay.” Marsh sighed.

“Thanks. So you can’t tell an original from a copy.”

“No, I thought that was the point of them? Also you’re the one who said you weren’t original.”

“They were fast tanked and only had a minimal imprint of me. More like my old self from my long combat days. They were short lived but that would still give them a couple of decades. But I am not one of those. I wasn’t fast-tanked.”

“Oh, right.” Marsh was quiet. “You’re not making that much sense.”

“Look. I died. In a very horrible fashion. There was a lot of brain damage, and a heck of a lot more body damage. So they gave me a new body. But they didn’t grow just an ordinary body. They took their time and created a highly specialised combat orientated body. They created an enhanced organic, able to survive in very rigorous situations. I have a fast metabolism for recovery, redundant organs, enhanced reflexes and a whole host of other special quirks. I pretty much can’t be poisoned or gassed and can survive in unbelievable toxic conditions, including zero pressure.”

“Could they not do something about your sense of humour why they were at it?” Marsh grinned a cold smile.

“Thanks. They did. They reconstructed me. All of me. They enhanced me. I don’t have all the memories of the time before my death. Even fewer now as it has been so long. I was a different person, I guess. I was still as mean and pissed at the universe.” Drick smiled back.

“Why did they save you?” asked Marsh. “Sounds like an expensive procedure. Why not just build a fresh person and programme them?”

“Mostly because of how immoral, and illegal, that was and is. “ said Drick. “Don’t laugh. The organisation who did this don’t always play by the rules. In fact they bend them into knots most of the time. But they do believe in the spirit of the law. They would consider it obscene to grow a lifeform to act as their enforcer. To mould an intellect into being a weapon. But they don’t mind taking someone who is already pretty much trained and giving them a choice.”

“So they made you choose life or death?” asked Marsh.

“No. They reconstructed me. They could have placed me in a normal organic shell. That was an option. They would have repaired what they could of my memories and I would have had a half century or more of existence. It is unlikely that I would have earned enough to pay for a new body at the end of that time.”

“Why only a half century?” Marsh looked puzzled. “I thought that lifespans were over two hundred years now?”

“They are, now. The early days of tanking were not as good. The degeneration from genetic disorders meant that most cloned life had between fifty and a hundred Terran years. Same as a fast tan today. And if you wanted to transfer your intellect then not all of you made the transfer. You lost some. It was incomplete. I came from a time not much past your own. They had the same limitations on transfer of whole intellect as your people did. The original Marsh of course.”

“So you chose super-soldier then?” Marsh laughed. “Did they give you a superhero name?”

“No.” Drick glared at Marsh. “Enhanced, not super. I have limitations, lots of them.”

“I would have never had mentioned that, had you not said anything.,” said Marsh.

“You’re a real bundle of joy today,” Drick quipped. “I have the name, Drick. It wasn’t my name before.”

“Are you going to tell me what your name was before?” Marsh asked,

Drick stared at him for a long moment. “Kendrick.” They said finally. “Alison Kendrick.”