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Reality Fault

A Passion Play

    Terra II's System
    Space... normal, star-filled space. It appears empty, just the one Gate leading away, and nothing else immediately visible. Scanning reveals the single Sol-type sun and its eerily similar planetary system.

Kerry brings the Indigo to relative rest, orbiting in the system's version of the asteroid belt, and stretches his wings. "Okay. First order of business, I think, is to do a spectroscopic analysis of Terra II's atmosphere. The place looks filthy enough that I would not be particularly surprised if there wasn't any free oxygen left." He looks over to Vash. "Want to give me a hand?"

Vash nods and begins reconfiguring his console to provide sensor control. "Ugly. Ugly ugly. Someone's not taken good care of this version of our little planet."

"That," Douglas says, "-or something else didn't. Look at the size of those craters. I imagine dropping a few asteroids on Earth could have effects like that."

Analyzing the images coming back from what Kerry has dubbed Terra II reveals that it is the same mass as the familiar Terra, and has a similar number and gross pattern of continents. The atmosphere seems a bit thin, and heavier on the nitrogen and carbon dioxide than Terra itself would be. The earth itself seems blackened, and often marred by huge craters. The oceans are much reduced, with a large amount of their water in the turgid and tempestuous atmosphere. As readings come in it becomes clear too that the atmosphere and probably the entire surface of the planet is highly radioactive. The signal that the ship has followed seems to be strong, then blocked, as it apparently orbits the planet.

Kerry frowns at the optical readouts and switches to the high-energy scope. "Gamma rays. Characteristic frequencies of long-lived fission fragments and daughters. That explains what happened... someone got a bit playful with the nukes... and this version of Earth didn't have the Star Wars systems."

Vash shakes his head. "Madness."

Kerry skrees, "Nyyehkulturnyye."

Vash says, "I don't think I've read all of Lovecraft's work... what did you say?"

Kerry snorts. "Russki comment. I think I spent too much time visiting Kiska. Literally, uncultured. More accurately, it means 'barbarians'..."

Douglas looks quietly at the scans for a few long moments, then turns back to his console. This isn't our world, he thinks. We don't know the people who did this. Maybe it's slightly reassuring. Maybe. "This still begs the question, lady and gentlemen. If this is... was... Earth... an Earth... why are the stars in no recognizable pattern? And... who did this? We cannot jump to the conclusion that it was humans... or even if they did it to themselves, or had it done to them. Maybe that orbiting beacon will have some clue as to what happened, and who these people were."

Vash says, "Well... it's no use blaming the people who did this. They've long gone to their gods. Right now we should concentrate on the still living. Even if they are Texan."

Kerry skrees, "Shall we investigate first? We're not that far from the planet now, and there might be descendants of survivors on the orbital platform."

Douglas says, "Actually... should we risk using one of the probes, first? Instead of going in personally right away, approach the platform with a probe. If nothing happens, we can always go in and retrieve it. If something does happen..."

Vash says, "Let's conserve the probes in case we need to start sending back important data. Let's investigate the orbital signal first. Firing a probe may be misconstrued as aggression... their planet was annihilated by small flying objects, after all. They may not even remember what a probe signifies." He sighs, "Then again... there may be no one living here."

Douglas glances to Vash. "And we're a big flying object. But." He shrugs "We'll learn nothing out here. Is there anything else in orbit around... around that world? That we can detect, anyway?"

Kerry finishes the navigation plot. "Either way, five days to get there from here, and only a few hours difference in the trip back to the local Gate."

Vash says, "All ahead full, then. Let's see what we can find here."

The five-day flight is uneventful.

As Kerry places the Indigo into a high orbit, the accumulation of junk in orbit becomes visible. Most of it is in lower orbits, perhaps decaying orbits. Some is visibly scarred, having been hit with laser or missile fire, while others drift peacefully but dead, having been damaged invisibly, or simply having failed. A very few seem to radiate any heat, and only the one is broadcasting. When Indigo finally overtakes it, it has a sickeningly familiar AT&T logo emblazoned on it, with antenna pointed down at the silent rock it orbits, and one transmitting a repeating query, apparently towards the Jupiter equivalent.

Douglas says dryly, "I bet they try to buy the rights to use this in their advertising."

Vash says, "I think all the reaching out and touching has been done already."

Kerry stares at the display for some time... finally turning away, muttering, "Dona eis nobis... et in Terra pax, hominibus. Requiem in pacem..."

Vash nods to Kerry. "In Nomine Patri, et filii, et Spiritu Sancti."

Kerry skrees, "There seems to be something more on that satellite... mind if I take a run over there in my suit to look at it?"

Vash says, "Maybe we can train the telescope on it. I'd rather not risk an EVA in this environment yet."

Douglas, not being a religious man, has no words. What words he might have he holds until they find out just what happened. Then he'll know... what to do. But his thoughts are interrupted. He sits up, blinking and looking at his console. "I think... let me see..." He starts working at the keyboard at his console, looking at the readout of the signal.

Kerry skrees, "I'd hate to try to nudge this beast in close to it... can you bring it up on the scope at this close a range?"

Vash shakes his head. "I'm not usually very religious. But under the circumstances... if nothing else it would make my mother happy." He begins to work at the console, "I'll try."

Douglas decodes the signal. It's standard telecom messaging, requesting status and trying to regain a lost connection, apparently querying something called relay1.io.jupiter.att.net and relay2.io.jupiter.att.net from this side, as well as uplink.denver.co.att.net and several other points on the planet. Douglas finally frowns slightly at his screen, leaning back in his chair. "Odd... it looks like network traffic. Network traffic trying to get to Io, at Jupiter, as well as Denver, Colorado here... if I'm reading this right, at least. He leans forward to his console again. "The comsat is trying to query what looks like two relay nodes at Io -- did we ever have anything at Io? -- and some sort of uplink at Denver." He shakes his head, a little in derision. "All part of the att.net domain, of course..."

Kerry skrees, "Hmmm, indeed. I wonder if it would be worth trying to intercept it?"

Vash manages to capture frames with the video system through the telescope, which have the small text in better focus, and run a sharpening and zoom processor on them. Most of the text is serial numbers, and labels like, "DO NOT STEP HERE", but one block consists of a bunch of engineers' signatures, and a notice: 'The engineering teams at McDonald-Douglas and AT&T are proud to launch the world's first interplanetary telephone communications link, to connect the people of Earth and the science and mining outposts orbiting Jupiter.'

Douglas says, "Intercept it? You mean, spoof our communications system so that the comsat thinks we're one of those relays?"

Kerry skrees, "Yeah. Might be able to check Io in fifteen minutes instead of a week."

Vash says, "Outposts orbiting Jupiter... strange... didn't Clarke write something about diamonds on Jupiter?"

Douglas says, "'Cause there's no data in the signal. It's just looking for the relay's response. Uhm... I'll give it a try, but it's not my specialty..."

Kerry skrees, "Well, yeah, but he was a fiction writer. No way to get at Jupiter's core in any event."

Vash says, "I wasn't suggesting we should... only thinking out loud."

Douglas types at the keyboard for several minutes, but after a number of angry blerts from his console he finally shakes his head, sighing. "Told you this wasn't my specialty. It's trying to open an encrypted connection to the Io relays. I'd need a security key to make it think we're the relay nodes, or the uplink." He looks over to Kerry, frowning. "I wasn't really exposed to the telecommunication side of things. Did we... our world... ever develop something like this? I mean, an interplanetary internet?"

Kerry skrees, "Nothing quite like this. We had the capability before the War, but we never put colonies out so we never had to use it."

Douglas nods slowly, turning to look at the screen at his console. "Well... this makes things even weirder. By all rights, we should be in another star system, with the stars in such different configurations. Anyone else notice that not only can we read what's on the satellite, but our computer can talk to theirs, at least enough to understand theirs is saying 'buzz off'?"

Vash says, "One of these things is not like the other."

Kerry skrees, "Alternate dimensions. Told you Gatespace was weird."

Douglas says, "At least it's probably not time travel, not with the stars like this..."

Kerry skrees, "Nope. That's one thing that's ruled out. This would be a salutary place for politicians to visit, if you ask me. You want to run for national office, you have to come here first..." He stares at the display again. "Want to run up the beam to Io, or not? Six days, and a day shorter to the Gate from there vs. here."

Douglas says, "So... what do we do now? Take the comsat aboard and try to get into it locally? Though it looks more like a router; there might not be anything in it other than a routing table... a routing table for the Solar System, admittedly..."

Kerry shakes his head. "That would seem almost like desecration. I'd rather not."

Vash says, "If it is a router, there's nothing for us to learn from it. I doubt it's even so sophisticated as that. A bounce relay at best. And... if it IS working, it's possible that there are people on Io that are relying on it."

Kerry skrees, "Vash... think about it. If there were humans still alive, they'd have stopped calling long ago. Only machines are this patient."

Vash says, "Unless there's someone on both ends."

Douglas shakes his head, "It's not routing or relaying anything, Captain. All it's doing is sending a 'hello, please answer' signal. Uhm... Pilot, here's another question for you... we didn't have anything on Io, did we?"

Kerry skrees, "Not unless it was so top-secret that the records were lost in the War."

Vash says, "I don't like to rule out the possibility of life. If it were me, I wouldn't want to be left behind. Regardless, you may be right. I still want to run the beam back to Io."

Douglas says, "We'll at least find out what's there..." He frowns slightly. War... War... what if these peoples' War didn't happen until later? Or... what if it never happened at all? Stop it, Douglas, now you're imagining aliens. They did this to themselves. That may be so... but then, who built the Gates...?

Kerry begins to rotate the ship, first nudging it with steering rockets so that the drive field won't disturb the satellite... he almost feels sorry for the thing, doing its duty long after its masters are gone... Vash says, "Vaya con Dios, Terra. Sleep good." Kerry flicks the acceleration warning, and the Indigo settles down to one gravity again, outbound for Jupiter II.

The approach to Jupiter II is quiet, with only the endlessly questing signal from the phone company coming out here with them. Finding Io where it belongs, and bringing in pictures from the telescope makes the base visible, a sort of mongrel of access ports and antennae and hatches coming out of the Jovian satellite's ground. Much of the rest must be underground. Another satellite hangs in front of it, a dull glint in orbit, and responds to no signals, and emits no heat.

Douglas says dryly, "Unfortunately, Io II isn't any more hospitable than Terra II was... but we've come this way..."

A weak signal emits from the base itself, another endless repetition, this one much simpler and easily recognizable... three short, three long, and three short, followed by a longer pause.

Douglas says, "M'aidez..."

Vash nods. "SOS." He sighs again, more deeply. It's quite sad to see these machines still plaintively calling into the dark.

Kerry nods. "Indeed. Should we land? Easy enough in low gravity."

Vash says, "Yes. Let's go look."

Vash, Kerry, and Douglas suit up and board Alshain, while Sakura remains behind aboard the Indigo to monitor. After depressurizing the landing bay, Kerry carefully undocks the slightly awkward atmospheric craft, brings her around, and then arcs in long and slow to Io. When the landing comes in (eerily silent in the lack of atmosphere), the light gravity, Alshain's improved landing gear, and Kerry's skill make it a relatively effortless one.

After landing, on the approach to the main hangar gates (which are closed), the station appears quiet. The signal seems to come from the main control tower, which has its own access point. There are also the hangar gates and a couple of smaller access hatches visible.

Kerry grumbles as he finishes putting on his pressure suit -- the little bat is horribly uncomfortable with his wings all scrunched up inside one -- and seals his helmet. "Radio check. Can everyone hear me?"

Vash methodically checks all his seals, one after the other, and nods once. "I have you."

Douglas has his suit on; it's a little uncomfortable but for once he's glad he lost his tail; it makes putting the thing on so much easier. "I hear you." He picks up his toolkit, pulling out the meter and mentally reviewing what Io's background radiation is.

Kerry stashes a few tools, a Keero pistol, and a radiometer in his suit's external pouches, and starts down the stairs. "We don't want to hang around here for too long. Father Jupiter gets cranky at times." The huge planet hangs overhead, the Great Red Spot glaring down at the party as they leave the shuttle.

Vash hefts the rifle, checking the action. "Let's only have a look, yes. This place is a tomb. I feel like a trespasser."

The party approaches the nearest lock. The controls on the doors are dark, and do not respond.

Douglas looks at the lock, and around the doorway, seeing if there's a manual lever system or, if not, some sort of access panel that he can subject to the (hopefully) tender mercies of his toolkit. Ah, there it is. He moves to the actuator that he spots. "I'll try opening it slowly, just in case there's a pressure difference..."

Vash takes up a position opposite the hatch, and trains the rifle on the door. Not that he expects anything to come rushing out, but... this is what he's paid to do. Douglas starts to turn the actuator. He strains only a little for a short bit, then the door opens -- not exactly easily, but not with great difficulty. He swings it open slowly once he discovers it's not slamming open from escaping interior pressure. Inside is revealed... the interior door of the airlock. The mechanism that keeps it closed while the other is open seems perfectly intact. Kerry skrees, "Might I suggest that we don't all go in at once?"

Vash says, "I'll go first."

Douglas nods in his suit helmet, then remembers that nobody can see him nod. "Keep up a steady stream of communication, Captain."

Vash steps past Douglas into the lock. "Don't worry now... I'll keep you company." He keeps the gun at his hip trained at the inner door, and slowly begins to work the hand-crank to cycle the airlock.

The airlock closes smoothly behind Vash.

Vash continues to crank. There's an unpleasant pause while little seems to happen before the interior door judders, and then slides smoothly aside. There is no rush of pressurization, and his suit claims that there's only a trace more atmosphere here than outside. Comm goes down, from all the metal separating the group. Inside, Vash can see the hangar, quiet and dark. His suit's lights show a ship, neatly docked, and several utility vehicles all connected to feed, as if they were used yesterday. Nothing moves but him. He pauses, waiting for his eyes to adjust properly, then chins his suit radio. "Hangar is quiet. Standby to cycle the lock. Kerry next." He steps out just enough to clear the lock and waits.

Kerry nods as Vash's radio fades out as he closes the airlock door. After a minute, he nods and relays back to Sakura via the shuttle, "Looks like we'll be out of touch inside the base. We'll try to be back in an hour. Hold the fort for us." He nods to Douglas. "Shall we join him, then?"

Douglas fidgets a little, frowning. "Blast. Yes, we should. I'll go next..."

Kerry skrees, "Might as well go together. Either he'll still be in the lock, in which case we let him out, or he'll be inside, in which case the lock works."

Douglas says, "Even better." As the two enter the airlock, the cougar quips, "It's a little tight in here... hope you showered this morning..."

Kerry chirrips. "Don't be ridiculous. We were in zero-gee this morning."

Once inside, the suit-to-suit radios work again, and three sets of lights pick out details inside the hangar. It's only barely larger than the hangar aboard the Indigo.

Vash says, "Welcome."

Kerry skrees, "Depressing."

Douglas blinks, looking around. "Very."

Kerry skrees, "I'm hoping we can find some written or electronic records here of what happened. A lot easier here than piecing the bits together down on that radioactive hell of a planet."

Vash says, "Then we should move toward the control section."

The hangar is quiet and dead. The feeds which the vehicles are still hooked to have no power. One of the service trucks is missing from its bay.

Douglas says, "That's probably a good idea. The Mayday signal is coming from there..." He glances over to the empty stall. "I wonder what happened to that one...""

Vash looks around for an indicator of some kind... he doesn't want to wander around in the dark for very long. "Maybe we'll find out."

Kerry skrees, "They may have decided to go outside when life support failed. Let's go look. I told Sakura to expect us back in an hour."

The Control tower's lift isn't working. After a climb up its small and cramped access stair, the three emerge on to the control center for the base. Most of the controls are dead and lifeless. A tiny green glow comes from one console, which has its cover removed. The control chairs are neatly put away and desks cleared, as if people expected to come back to work in the morning. No mad panic or screaming fights went on here.

Douglas looks around, and a sudden thought makes him shiver. "Oh, hell," he mutters, even as he's moving to the open console. The tiny green glow is nothing more terrifying than a single green LED, which is soldered onto a carefully hand-made board, which sits nestled in the housing, from which other parts have as neatly been removed and stacked in front of the console on the floor. Wires trace from the board and out the back of the console, while two large wires, which pass through an impressive breaker switch, are bolted to its other end.

Kerry looks around for notes or loose disks... "What?"

Vash turns, "What is it?"

Douglas sets his toolkit on the console, pre-calibrating the multimeter. "Look around. Everything nice, neat, tidy. I think I can guess where the truck went. They went out... with no intention of coming back." He bends to work at the console, examining but not yet touching the components, trying to divine their purpose and configuration. "It must have been bad for them, when Terra II died..." he adds softly.

Vash says, "What are you saying?"

Douglas sighs softly as he looks at the components. "Station emergency power," he notes. "They could have run the entire place for a few days; instead someone re-wired it to this transmitter so it'll keep sending for... a long time." He stands, shaking his head. "They took their time about this; this wasn't a rush job." He looks over to Vash, wincing even as he speaks. "They probably heard what was going on, back home -- they might have even seen some of it. But when it was over that comsat was no longer feeding them anything; no uplink from Denver... because there was no Denver. I'm no student of psychology, but..." For the first time, Doug feels a bit of a sting in his eyes, and he looks around the room. "They... *cough* they ah... probably saw themselves as the last ones alive, and... set this up in case someone came by... who knows, maybe they knew about the Gate and hoped someone would arrive via it, if they knew what it was. But they were the last and... couldn't live with it." He begins to pack up his toolkit slowly. "We won't find any bodies. I... imagine they tidied up the place, put everything in order... shut off the lights... They got into the missing truck and..." He nods, in the general direction of 'outside.' "And... went for a drive... a long drive..."

Vash doesn't say anything for a few long moments. Then he raises the rifle again, heading for the access stairs. "You have a vivid imagination, Douglas."

Kerry nods. "I suspect you're right... The controls are all still active, if their conventions were the same as ours, but the reactors are long dead and if there were any solar cells the sulfur frost has long since covered them."

Douglas simply doesn't reply to Vash's comment. He just lets out a breath, then shakes his head a bit, as if to clear it. "Be that as it may... if they went to the trouble to leave a mayday signal, they'd have leave a missive of some sort. Unfortunately it's probably so obvious it's right under our noses."

Kerry skrees, "But if they were hoping someone would eventually happen by, where's the documentation? The warnings not to do what they did, or the warnings about what killed them? There's not even a phone number here."

Douglas nods slowly, looking around. "Crew quarters," he says simply. Vash is already halfway down the stairs, headed in that direction. Douglas says, "We... we might find something there. If someone believed that this," he indicates the transmitter, "-would be heard, then they would have left something, believing it would be read."

Kerry grumbles. "Not the way I would've done it... but it can't hurt to look." He follows Vash back out of the control room. Douglas follows the other two down the stairway.

The correct word for the crew quarters is "down." Below the hangar, at least ten meters below, there is an access door, as well as a sign. The sign labels 'Recreation 1' and has a map of the other floors: a 'Recreation 2,' then six floors of 'Personnel Quarters,' with 'Generators' and 'Life Support' on the lowest levels. The door for Rec 1 is wedged open, incongruously in the neat and sterile atmosphere of the base, with a rock.

Douglas stops short when he sees the wedged-open door and, instead of heading towards the actual quarters, makes his way gingerly to the Rec 1 door. Kerry skrees, "This could be... unpleasant. Or it might be where the records are." He follows Douglas. "Which is it?"

Vash stands back a pace, covering Douglas, the rifle pointed out at the wedge of darkness between doorframe and rock.

Douglas pauses at the entrance to the recreation room. He says simply, "They left the door open..." Hesitating (out of reverence? Douglas isn't sure himself anymore, but somehow he can't bring himself to be afraid here, only sad) he gingerly pushes the door open, shining his light into the shadows beyond.

As Douglas tentatively pushes open the door, the lights from the three uplifts' suits cast dancing beams into the room. It's largely an empty space, with a high ceiling and some sort of formerly soft and yielding floor for team sports. The largest thing in the room is the missing utility truck, parked next to the service lift it rode down in, with its bed half full of native rocks, orange with sulfur. The other half truckload of the rocks covers the floor, piled into six rows of six heaps of stone, each about a meter wide, between two and three meters long, and less than a meter high. Vash closes his eyes. "Madre de Dios."

Douglas blinks a little, surprised and at first a little dismayed -- that the truck really is here, and he was shown to be simply wrong in front of Vash -- but then he sees the piles. "Oh, dear God..." He leans his back against the doorframe heavily.

Kerry sighs. "They couldn't bring themselves to spend eternity under Jupiter's Eye, after all. Poor devils..." He pauses, struck by an odd thought... were they humans? Or uplifts, or maybe another race evolved here? Should we look?

The darting and unsteady lights from the spacesuits pick out the occasional object sitting atop the cairns; something important left from those who had it. Vash swallows, and lowers his gun. There's no threat here. "Maybe there's some marker... an identifier."

Douglas looks again at the piles, frowning now. The Engineer is being curious; there's something wrong... then it hits him. "How were they buried?" he asks quietly.

Kerry skrees, "The last one at least, yes. Maybe he took slow poison and piled the rocks on himself?"

Vash walks toward the nearest of the cairns, looking at something that's caught the light. "It's possible..."

Kerry skrees, "Any pictures? I'm wondering if this alternate Earth was inhabited by humans..."

Douglas straightens, thinking fast now, but not fast enough. "They didn't bury themselves..." He steps into the room cautiously, looking for any evidence in the cairns that what Kerry suggested might be true. Because if not, he will carry on and get well and truly primed to start being scared now, thank you very much.

Vash kneels down next to a cairn, the gun at his side in the crook of his arm, and crosses himself silently. He picks up a yellowed and crumbling picture from the pile of rocks and looks at it for several moments. The cardboard of the frame tries to come apart in his hands, and the plastic front has yellowed. He can clearly see a smiling man and woman with two children, on some now-long-gone Terran beach. He carefully places the photograph back on top of the cairn, and says simply, "I'm sorry." He stands, brushing his fingertips together where the frame has crumbled to dust. He just stares at it for a few long moments, and can't think of anything to say at all.

Kerry wanders along the rows, looking at the mementos, careful not to touch anything. The yellowing implies that there was still oxygen present when they were interred. Many of the cairns have some memento left atop them, some reminder of a happier time gone by. All but the four nearest the door have a name, neatly printed on base stationery, and a position. Vash blinks to clear his eyes, and glances up. He takes a half-step back, the gun coming quickly up, his suitlights fixing on something there on the fender of the truck. The light from his suit picks out a white wedge sitting on the yellow front fender of the service truck. It doesn't move. A tiny glint of metal comes off of the bottom of it.

Douglas blinks, looking up at Vash's movement, then glances quickly over to where the other's suit lights shine, straightening and... not quite... worrying. Vash lowers the gun slowly and shakes his head. He finds himself moving less out of fright than out of base reaction and, strangely enough, out of a brief flash of defensive anger. He lets out a long breath. "Albondigas..." He shakes himself again and walks toward the truck.

Douglas glances at Vash's... expletive? Must be... and moves, cautiously, towards the fender, but also curiously. "What is it...?"

Vash finds a white three-ring binder. It has the base name and logo imprinted on it, and a label has been printed and inserted: "The Disaster." Vash stares at the cover for several seconds. He opens it and begins to leaf, very slowly, through the pages. He is very quiet, and if anyone looks they can see through his faceplate as he opens his mouth as if to say something, and then closes it again, twice, as he reads through the binder. After reading the last page, he closes the binder and hands it to Kerry. "This is what we were looking for." His voice is very quiet, almost inaudible against the radio background noise. He leans back against the fender of the truck, and bows his head.

Inside, printed on loose-leaf pages, Kerry and Douglas find several things. The first section is an official-reading report, describing the news of the Terran War, the loss of communications, and the failure of the supply ships to arrive. The report dictates coolly the fact that three of the forty crewmembers suicided early on, and their bodies were never found. It documents the attempts to build a hydroponics garden in the second Rec deck to try and produce the needed fresh supplies, which failed. Statistics for remaining amounts of water, power, oxygen, and food are listed. The station ran out of food long before it ran out of anything else.

The next section consists of two or three pages from each of the thirty-seven remaining crew; some hand written, some printed. Some are random notes or stories or vignettes. Some contain last wills and testaments. Some are good-byes, others are angry. The final section is a long, hand-written section, by what appears to be the last survivor. She apologizes for not having labeled the last few cairns and lists the crew's names; she didn't have a password for the printer and hadn't thought to get it. She writes of the distress and the loss and the odd feeling of peace and ease that deciding to build the memorials they were able to make gave the survivors.

Her notes end that she is now alone, and can't stop crying. Her tears mar the page, and smear the last of the ink. She closes with a goodbye, and the note that she chose to find her peace in her quarters, below, with the few things from home that held meaning for her.

That is the last page in the book.

Kerry nods, and reads through it himself... "Bozhemoi." He finishes the book, and gently places it back where it was found. "This should wait here. For whoever comes after us." Douglas turns from the book, walking a few steps away from where the book is. He pauses there, for a long time, at one point reaching up as if to turn off his suit light, but immediately deciding not to, and just letting his hand drop. Kerry shakes himself out of his reverie. "We need to go back. Sakura will be worrying by now."

Vash says, "You go on and radio ahead for me, would you please? I want to go down to the Crew section for a minute."

Kerry nods. "Thank her for me, too." He heads back up to the airlock exit. Vash nods, and exits the cairn room. He turns the corner and vanishes into the dark.

Douglas's voice is subdued, and catches slightly in his throat. "There's... nothing more for us here," he says. "There's... nothing more for any of us here." He glances over to Kerry finally, his face in shadows within his helmet. "Yes, it should. But... we should bring back... I don't know... scans of the pages." Why is it hurting to let the Engineer in him talk? Why would it hurt even more to not let him talk? "So that... the people back... back home will know what happened."

He feels a brief unhinging in his mind: But this is home, don't you know? It's Earth; it's where you grew up... only it's different. If you went back to Earth, you'd see a crater where your home is. You were never born here, you know. Two hundred years ago this happened, and you and everyone you have ever known in your miserable short life was never even born. The tiniest of sounds is perhaps heard from the cougar; never one who was remotely used to, or expected to be exposed to, this sort of thing. Finally he gathers himself, as best as he can, and nods, quietly, not really noticing the movement can't be noticed, as he follows Kerry up to the hangar.

Vash follows the stairs down to crew quarters. Names at each floor help him find the final survivor's quarters. The door isn't locked, and opens easily. The quarters are smaller than those aboard the Indigo; a tiny living area, this one containing several large, withered potted plants, and a loveseat that manages to look cozy despite the vacuum and darkness. An archway to one side leads to the bedroom. Vash pauses, just outside the archway, and crosses himself again before passing inside.

The bedroom is small, and mostly occupied by the bed. A bureau, decorated with a faded and disintegrating embroidered doily, holds some photos; a smiling woman and a dark haired man with a goofy and toothy grin, and some unremarkable, smooth rocks. The bed is dressed in a similarly embroidered afghan atop standard issue sheets and blankets. The figure in the bed is not entirely pleasant to look upon, centuries of vacuum and months of decay before that having left her a frail and withered mummy. She lies on her side, curled amongst the blankets, in something of a fetal position, facing out from the wall. Near her hands, which rest gnarled on the bed, a paperback book has fallen... a now faded and crumbling copy of "The Old Man and the Sea."

Vash looks around, watching his suit lights play over the furnishings, and sighs heavily. He spends a long time looking at the photograph, and then kneels again, bowing his head. "I hope you will forgive me for not removing my helmet, ma'am." He sets down the rifle and folds his hands. "And for bringing a weapon into your home. My name is Vashti... Vashti Ramos Montoya. I am the captain of the ship that found your message... we followed the beam here from Earth orbit. We will be on our way soon... we are looking for others for our side of the Gate, or Artifact, or whatever you knew it as." He takes a deep breath. "I am a soldier, ma'am... a killer by trade... I should not be here. I apologize for dishonoring your resting-place... but I came to thank you, on behalf of my crew. We will take the message back with us. And no one will forget." He closes his eyes, "Ave Maria, mater dei... ora pro nobis..." After completing the prayer he picks up the book and gingerly places it next to her hands, afraid he might destroy them by touching them. He draws up the afghan around her, and picks up his gun. "Sleep well, senora." He turns to go, and doesn't look back.

Sakura is relieved when Kerry and Douglas come on the radio. Not too long after that Alshain takes off, and lands again uneventfully aboard the Indigo. The vixen is curious to know what they all found, and somewhat confused by the somber mood upon return. Douglas goes through the motions, quietly, speaking only a little. He gets out of his suit, stows it, moves down the ship's accessway to prep the Gatedrive, even though he could just as easily do that from the bridge engine station. Vash pulls off his helmet mechanically. Seal one, seal two, once, twice around, and off. He leans back heavily against the bulkhead, and runs a hand down over his head to his nose. He rubs his eyes.

Vash's suit has several long, still scans of each page of the folder, including the cover, that can easily be cleaned up for reprinting. Kerry will download the camera files to the computer, and spends quite a bit of time on the trip back out to the Gate trying to correlate what happened in Terra II's War with what happened to Home Earth. What he eventually concludes is that the causes of war built similarly on both worlds. However, the uplifts' world built the uplifts to fight their battles, leading mostly to land wars which caused much damage and killed many, but did not destroy the planet. This other Terra seemed to have initially focused not on uplift development, but rather on space exploration, or something close. Not having created the uplifts, they instead went in for wholescale nuclear holocaust... with the results the Indigo's crew had just seen.

    -- Excerpt from personal log: Montoya, Vashti R., Captain, AGES Indigo
    -- Mission Date 30-10-2247 Mission Time 0422 - Shipwide Night Cycle, Final Phase

    Using the voice transcriber tonight; I've had a bit to drink, and my hands are shaking besides. Yes, I smuggled a bottle of Bombay Gold onboard. Yes, I drank a lot of it just now. Too bad it isn't helping. Waste of good liquor.

    Tonight, for three hours, we saw the end of the world.

    I filed an official report, and an entry in the Ship's Log, so there's no use repeating the dry facts of how we got down there, that miserable little grave. What we found on the other side of the Gate was Earth. Earth without Uplifts to fight that one last war for it. So, for want of one tool, they used another one. They used atoms instead of genes, and the planet died for it. There were no traces when we arrived... nothing but one satellite that was still requesting a reply from its counterpart out there around Jupiter. For the record, I wanted to deactivate it... Douglas and Kerry thought it would be disrespectful, but I feel guilty for leaving it to call out into the dark forever. Shutting it down would have been a courtesy... like closing the eyes of a dead man. I guess it doesn't really matter.

    On the station, we found the graves of the last people alive in this universe. The last humans, anyway. We found the book they left behind, a copy of which I have in front of me now. The last days. And the part that hurts more than anything else, what makes me want to scream and drove me into this bottle, is that it came down to just one woman at the end... and she had to die alone. No fault of hers. Just bad luck. Part of me wishes we could have found them sooner. Even though they were all years dead by the time we arrived... I'd have just wanted to tell her that she wasn't alone. No one should die all alone. But I guess there's no point in thinking "what if" now. God damn every Texan that ever lived. At the end, I had to thank her, for leaving the message for us. It's not enough, one prayer from an unbeliever like me. But there's not enough prayers across a thousand Gates, not enough for her. I hope she'll forgive us.

    I sat in the Bridge for two hours tonight when we got back, and just watched the planet recede. Got me thinking about home. This Earth had no Uplifts, that we could tell, and so used the next best weapon. What's that mean for us, then... does it make all our pain necessary? Every kid in El Paso, they had to die? Every gash in my Grandfather's armor needed to be there, for the sake of the world? I can't believe that. It sounds selfish, but it doesn't make any sense. Uplifts are just tools. If it hadn't been us... if it hadn't been the bomb... they'd have found something else. A pointy fucking stick. Something.

    Even today, we're still just tools. We're valuable professionals, all of us... and we're assets of the Aurora Group. I'm a gun. I walk and think and drink, I get fucking terrified -- Like I am right now -- But what I represent is a gun. Or my armor. Or a kick in the head for someone trying to play dirty with the Group's property.

    But that's okay. Because us tools, we found what was left. And we promised we wouldn't forget. Maybe we did save the world. Maybe not. But if anyone back home reads this book, they'll know how easy it is to let it get away from them. That'll have to be good enough.

    Sleep well, senyora. You're not alone now.

Last modified: 2001-Mar-09 13:36:12

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