The decontamination room was small, and very white. Everything was white; the deck, the bulkheads, even the ceiling. There was enough space in the room for perhaps ten people. The room was maybe five by five meters, and barely tall enough to stand up in.
As soon as we closed the hatch, the system automatically kicked in. A female computer voice instructed us to close our eyes. It then counted down from five, and began the decontamination sequence. I had no idea how the system worked, but there was bright light, and the moment it started, my faceplate went opaque in order to protect my eyes. A small display appeared in front of me, the faceplate acting like a monitor, showing me the view from a small camera on top of the helmet. It wasn't perfect, but the whole point of the CEVA was to allow soldiers to fight in any environment. When the computer announced that we were clean, the sequence stopped, and my faceplate returned to normal.
We moved towards the exit, a sliding hatch that David said would lead us into the central core. He stopped us before we entered.
"Guys, remember," he said, "take it slowly. I have no idea how bad things are in there, and I don't want anyone walking through a fragment, and having their faceplate or oxygen canister aging a thousand years. Remember what happened on the needle-jumper."
We all nodded. If the radiation levels were as high as we expected, even the smallest breach in our suit would be fatal. Maybe not right away, but levels that high meant spending your last conscious moments throwing up your own liquefied organs. Not cool.
David opened the hatch, and a small amount of suction pulled us forward as the pressure equalized between this room and the core chamber. We stood very still, watching and listening. The room was dim, with only a few of the lights still working. We waited for a good thirty seconds. Nothing. No shouting or movement. David stepped into the dimly lit chamber first, keeping a close watch on his radiation counter. It was crackling loudly. He took a single step through the hatch, and instantly his counter fell silent.
"Whoa," he said, stopping in his tracks. "What the hell?"
"Are the levels that high?" I asked. "Did they fry your counter?"
"I dunno," he said, watching the counter.
He stepped back into the decontamination room. The moment he was back with us, the counter started crackling again. He stepped back into the core, and it went silent. Back in with us, and it started up again. He stepped out again, and had us all follow him into the core. As soon as we crossed through the hatch, each of our counters went quiet.
"I have no idea what's causing that," he said in a less than pleased tone. "Don't trust it, though. Keep your suits sealed."
"Yeah," Kyle muttered over the comms gear, "I've got better things to do today than die."
The hatch closed behind us, sealing us in the central core. We were on a catwalk, at the top of a spherical room three decks high. The catwalk made a complete circle around the top of the room, with the upper support pylon rising up the middle. I looked up to see the window for the upper control room. The window was hard to see through; as though it had been windswept with sand like the windows we were so used to seeing on Alpha Centauri's western continent. I didn't see any movement, though. In fact, the entire core chamber seemed deserted.
"For a place that everyone says blew up and took half the ship with it," Kyle said, "things look pretty good here."
"No wreckage, no burn marks, and no signs of repair work," Raj added.
I looked over the railing of the catwalk. The two decks below us were just as undamaged. Control console were situated around the core on the center deck, small square stations with displays and smooth touch-pad controls. Some were closer to the core, others against the bulkhead. All were unmanned, and intact. The time core itself, a massive sphere which filled the bulk of the deck below us, stood silently, held in place by the pylons above and below it.
"I have no idea why there's no damage," David said before I could even pose the question. "This chamber is either pre-accident, or something is very out of place."
"If it's pre-accident," Raj commented, "where is the crew? Even if we walked in on a night shift, or during its construction, there would be someone here. A tech, security watchman, whatever. This place is like a tomb."
That's when I noticed the quiet. The Saturnus, like any other ship, always had a low background hum. The engines, the equipment, and the people all contributed to an ever-present hum. Even in this ship's condition, the hum was there. Not here, though. The chamber was utterly silent, except for our boots clanging on the deck.
"Look at this," David commented, kneeling down.
He moved his gloved finger along the deck plate, pushing aside a fine, white, sand-like material. Some fell through the holes in the catwalk deck plating.
"What is it?" Kyle asked.
David shook his head as he rubbed the sand between his fingers. It glittered slightly in the light. He picked up some more, scooping it into his hands, and stood up. He held it out for us to see.
"I don't know." David scowled as he said it, and reached into his butt-pack for a small sample vial. He poured the sand into it, and put it away. "Careful on the ladders. This stuff will make the rungs slippery."
I looked out over the core. The upper pylon dropped down to the next deck, where it connected to the core itself. The massive circular core was easily eight meters across, and just as high. I could see a few lights and panels here and there, but they were mostly covered with that same sandy material.
"What about fragmentation?" I asked.
David looked around. I could hear him grumbling. "I don't know. I have no way to test it. I don't have the proper equipment. Well, I did, but it was wrecked with the needle-jumper."
"How about throwing something down the ladder?" Raj said. "Watch for any aging effects. See if it rots away, or something."
I looked around us, but the catwalk was empty. No debris.
"Maybe we don't need something big," David commented.
He knelt down and scooped up a handful of sand and threw it into the air, watching it fall. He did it again.
"I don't see anything," he said. "Give it a try."
We scooped up handfuls and sprinkled it over the side of the catwalk. I watched closely for any signs of something odd. I wasn't really sure what I would see if the sand passed through a fragment, though. It wasn't like sand would look much different if it suddenly aged a bunch of years. Yeah, it would become smaller, but I didn't have a microscope to check.
"Looks clear, I think," David said.
"You think?" Kyle chuckled. "Wow, that's all scientific and shit, David."
David shot him sneer. "Despite what you guys think, I'm a combat technician, not the font of all knowledge. What do you want from me, man?"
Kyle shrugged, nudging David on the shoulder to show he wasn't serious. "I dunno. How about a guarantee that I won't age fifty years when I reach the bottom of the ladder? I don't think Viagra works on ninety-four year-olds."
"Who'd want to sleep with you at that point, anyway?" Raj asked.
"Who'd want to tap him, now?" I asked. "Alright, David thinks it's clear, so down we go."
"Hang on," our combat tech said. "Let's cover the entire lower deck, first."
We continued tossing sand down onto the decks below us, circling around the upper pylon so we could cover the entire chamber. I also threw some in front of me, making sure I didn't walk into a fragment. As I came around the other end of the pylon, I tossed down some more sand, and watched it fall to the deck below, onto a console. That's when I spotted it.
"There!" I pointed to the deck below. "Body!"
"Holy shit, how did that get there?" Kyle said in shock, when he saw exactly what it was. "That's not good."
I was the first one down the ladder to our left, descending two rungs at a time and jumping down the last few. I kept my rifle ready, watching for movement. Kyle was right behind me, watching the deck below us through the catwalk's grid-like deck. He grabbed me by the shoulder.
"Hold up, Jack," he said. "Slow down."
I held myself steady, my eyes barely moving from the body only a few meters away. I waited for Raj and David to climb down. The two of them swept around the far side of the core. I started to move forward, with Kyle right behind me. I reach my target, and looked closely.
"How did that get here?" Raj asked.
"Whose is it?" David wondered.
I knelt down, looking at the empty marine CEVA suit which leaned up against a control station across from the core. It was covered in the same layer of white sand as everything else. A standard issue naval officer's pistol lay nearby. The suit's faceplate was shattered, with a fist-sized hole right through the front of it. The suit lay where the marine had died. I could see through the back of the helmet.
David leaned in to check the blast hole in the helmet.
"No plasma burns," he commented. He carefully touched the edges of the shattered faceplate. "The break is sharp, like it was shattered, not burned away. Edra anti-personnel rounds on a high setting, probably."
"Anyone else a little freaked out, here?" Raj asked, looking around him as though he expected to get jumped.
"More than a little, man," Kyle muttered. His voice had lost its cocky tone.
I looked over the suit. Of course it had no markings on it. No rank, or name. Certainly no unit patch. It was as anonymous as ours were, as they all were.
"Bishop didn't say shit about another recon team," Raj growled. "Is anyone here not fucking with us?"
"Check the dog tags," David suggested.
I pulled the suit forward off the console, and tried to pry back the helmet. The helmet wouldn't retract on its own, even when I found the emergency medical switch on the right glove display, put there so medics could open the suit in an emergency.
"The power is out," I said.
David shook his head, and knelt down to look for himself. "No way. These things have like three years of full power, and then a whole lot than that in standby mode."
He leaned the body even further forward, and took a look at the backpack. After a moment, he set it back against the console. He just shook his head in frustration.
"Yeah, it's drained," he said, not really believing his own words. "Don't know how, though."
"Could it be a time fragment?" Kyle asked. "You know, like we hit on the needle-jumper?"
David shook his head. "No. Jack and I are right here, and we're not feeling it. Check my air, though. Let's be sure."
Kyle leaned over, and checked both of us. We were good to go.
I sighed. "Got that handy little cutter on you?" I asked.
David nodded, and pulled the small hand torch from his butt-pack. The tiny little cutter, which reminded me of a glue gun my niece used for her crafts, could cut through anything shy of tank armor. David cut away the helmet, careful to keep the setting low enough to avoid damaging the body inside. I held the body while he worked, while Kyle and Raj watched a few steps back, covering us.
The helmet came off quickly, and I gasped at what was inside.
"Fuck me," Kyle spoke first. "No way."
"It's gotta take a hundred years for this to happen," Raj pointed out.
I nodded, gazing into the left eye socket of the skull in the suit. The skull was horribly damaged from the rounds. The entire right side of the head was gone, as well as most of the teeth. I could hear bone fragments sliding around in the suit as we shifted it around. Whoever this had been, they didn't suffer.
"What the hell is this?" I asked.
David looked over the suit, pushing his finger into the soft parts between the thin armor plates that covered the chest. They were brittle, and his finger pushed right through in places.
"Radiation has broken down the material," he said. "It probably broke down the paint on the bulkheads. That's what this sandy substance is, paint particles off the bulkheads. The thing is, radiation levels as high as we've seen could do all of that in a few days. The body doesn't fit."
"How long does it take for a body to totally decompose?" I asked.
Raj knelt in, looked over the skull. "In open air, a body can decompose in about a year." He reached in and touched the skull. A piece broke off with little pressure. "The bones are very brittle. That takes a long time, like decades."
I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. I took in a deep breath and held it, trying to steady myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. I turned to see what I thought were wisps of smoke. The more I tried to focus on what I was seeing, the more blurry it became. Still, I got the sense that I was watching people.
I knew instinctively that it was the crew I was watching. They were moving around calmly, smiling, chatting, working at the controls. It was as though I were watching a scene out of time. This was the engineering crew. They were preparing something. They were going through checklists, making records of readouts, calling out readings.
"Jack?" the voice came. "Jack, buddy, you there?" It was David.
I looked his way. "Yeah, I'm here."
David was concerned. I could see it through his faceplate. He was watching me closely, and I saw that the others were, too.
"Problem?" I asked.
"You tell me," David replied, a worried look in his eye. "You looked like you were a million miles away, for a bit."
I waved him off. "Whatever, just distracted." I looked back to where I had been watching the crew, but they were gone. "Just rattled from before. Don't worry about it."
David grabbed my right hand, and held it in front of me. He flattened out my fingers.
"Hold it there for me, would you?" he asked.
"Why?" I replied. "What's the problem?"
"Just hold it there," he said. "Humor me."
I held my hand out in front of me, fingers extended flat. It was easy at first, but I could feel the muscles starting to strain ever so slightly. After about ten seconds, I saw it. David did, too.
"Ah fuck, man," Kyle said. "You've got the shakes, buddy."
I lowered my hand. "I'm just tired, that's all," I insisted.
David's face said he was anything but convinced. "The Edra commander, that's what he was talking about. He said you were more than angry or frustrated, like us. He said you were more than that, but you weren't aware of it, yet."
I smirked, but not from amusement. "What are you saying, David? You think I'm suffering from temporal psychosis? You think I'm like those space-happy nuts in the forward shelter?"
David shrugged, that same goddamn annoying habit he had when he didn't have an answer, but gave one anyway. "Not as bad, but yeah, it looks that way."
"Bullshit," I replied. "Bull-fucking-shit. You've all been in the same places I have. You've all been exposed to the same things. It wouldn't just be me."
"Um, Jack?" Kyle said from behind David. "Jack?"
"What?" I snapped.
Kyle's hand was held out in front of him, like mine had been. It was shaking.
"It's not just you," he said.
"Me too," Raj said. His hand was a little worse than mine. "I didn't really notice until now."
David's hand was steady. He sighed. "I'm good for now, but it won't be long before I start, too. We need to get off this ship, sooner rather than later."
"How come we're being affected so quickly?" I asked. "The engine room crew seemed okay, and the people in the forward section took four months to get that bad. We've only been on board a couple of hours."
"The needle-jumper," Raj said with a nod. "We got a dose of whatever it is, then."
I shook my head. "We didn't touch that time fragment. It only caught the starboard side of the ship. We all saw where the aging effect ended."
"Maybe it's like a fire," David suggested. "You can stand away from the flames, but still get burned from the heat. It's like sunburn."
"Great, what do we call it? Timeburn? Fuck it, man," Kyle snarled. "Let's just blow this core all to hell, and go." He thumped the core's outer casing. "It's not armored. We could probably tear it apart with our rifles, no problem."
"Look at this place, Kyle," David said, gesturing to the sand. "This place has been like this for a while. I think that here, we're way past the accident. We need to shut this down from the bridge, before the captain initiates stage three."
"Alright," I said, raising my voice to cut through the conversation. "Let's see if we can figure out what happened here, nice and quick, and then get to the bridge. I want us off this fucking boat."
I stood up, and brushed the sand off my suit. David replaced the cutter back in his butt-pack, and started looking around. The console in front of us, where the body in the CEVA suit was laying, seemed to be what he needed.
"This should be the master console," David said, pointing. "This is where the time core is operated from." He looked around him. "Yeah, everything else is for monitoring or tweaking energy flow, field stability, that sort of thing. This is where it all happens."
I slid the body aside, trying to be respectful of the fallen marine. His identity would have to wait. As soon as he was laid on the deck, David stepped in to tinker with the console. He brushed the thin layer of sand off console surface. The flat touch panels were black, dead.
"No power," he grumbled. "I still have that second portable battery."
"How long will it last?" I asked. "This isn't like the airlock. This thing has got to use a lot of power."
"I'll probably get a few minutes out of it," he replied. "I'll work quickly."
He produced the battery from his suit pocket, and opening a panel at the base of the console, started working. The small station had an access panel on the side, and David had to use his power screwdriver to open it. The little screwdriver's motor groaned, straining to turn the screws.
"Man, these are really tight," David said as his equipment fought against the screw. "It's like they're rusted in there or something." When the first of the screws finally came out, he examined it. "That's exactly what it is. These things are rusted in place."
It took a few minutes to get the panel open, and a few more to wire the portable battery into place. David wasn't sure where the power stopped flowing, and didn't want to end up touching a live connection. While he worked carefully with wire cutters, Raj and I searched the dead marine.
The skeleton itself didn't have any dog tags around the neck, which raised more questions than it answered. Marines never took off their dog tags, not ever. Even recon squads like ours had them on at all times, regardless of how deep in the shit we were. We might not want to be seen skulking in places we weren't welcome, but we wanted someone to know where send our bodies to if we took one round too many.
Just as we were about to start searching pockets, David got the console powered up and running. I let Raj continue searching our fallen brother, while I joined David at the console. Kyle was patrolling the area, round and round the core, keeping watch for the Edra or the crew.
"There we go," David said as he started working controls. "Ah, okay, there's the initiator." He kept working. "I need to find the sequence records. They'll be time stamped. Right, there we go."
"And so?" I asked.
"Hang on, Jack," he said, scrolling through the endless streams of information. "This interface is really different from what I'm used to. They really did design this thing from the ground up, obviously all to interface with the Edra technology."
"Right," I replied. "I almost forgot about that."
David pointed toward the core. There was a small panel in the massive sphere, beside a console. It looked like a small circular hatch.
"That's the center of the entire apparatus, right there," he said. "I'll bet the time core itself is behind that panel."
"Let's pop it out," Kyle suggested.
"Yeah, uh, no," David said with a smirk. "We'd have to power up half the room and we'd need to insert the code modules to open it."
"If we can get you the power, do you have the codes?" I asked.
"Oh, I had the code modules and the power," David said as he continued to look through the logs. "They're about a hundred years gone, sitting in a pile of rapidly aged debris aboard the needle-jumper."
"What about blasting the panel open?" Kyle asked.
"Would you blast open the access panel on a fusion bomb, even if you thought it was disarmed?" David asked, not really expecting an answer.
"Fine," I said, "just get what you need."
"I got it," he said a moment later. "So, here's what happened. According to the logs, there was a sudden power overload during stage one. The logs show that power actually flowed out of the core, as opposed to flowing into it. It recorded it as feedback. It happened again during stage two. There was a lot more of it."
"Why didn't they stop, then?" I asked.
"Well, it looks like the feedback didn't do much to the surrounding systems," he said, reading. "Oddly enough, the time stamps are out of whack. During both the stage one and two tests, the readings immediately following both feedback spikes are listed as having happened two seconds before the previous reading. I guess that nobody noticed the discrepancy."
"Stage three?" I prompted him.
I looked around me. More and more, I felt like I was walking in a tomb. I could sense the movement of people who had long since fled this place, or perhaps died. I gave my head a shake, trying my best to focus on David's voice.
"The stage three records are very confused," he said. "There was another feedback spike, but this time it looks like it spread pretty far. I have no idea how far, because the last record here, at least for a while, is an emergency shutdown, which is exactly what it's supposed to do in case of an overload. My guess is, the overload spread out into the surrounding power conduits, and blew them. It obviously hit engineering, as well."
"For a while?" I asked. "You said that was the last record for a while. Are there more, afterward?"
He nodded, his gloved fingers sliding along the smooth, blackened surface which lit up with the required displays.
"The console rebooted itself a few minutes later, but sat unattended," he explained. "Wow."
"Wow what?" Kyle called back. "What do you mean, wow?"
David played with the controls, checking the logs against what looked like maintenance records. He just shook his head.
"This console sat idle, and eventually went into standby mode. There isn't a single crew input recorded, not even a maintenance check, after the accident. Nobody touched it. Also, according to the records, the console was getting power from a local emergency battery, not the mains. It was cut off. It fed off the battery for as long as it could, but eventually even that gave out."
"How long, David," I demanded. "Just say it."
"The power went out on January tenth, 2362." David just shook his head as he said.
"A hundred and seventeen years." Kyle was more amazed than anything. "That's fuckin' unbelievable."
"At least it explains the state of this place," Raj added. "And the body, too."
I looked to Raj, who still knelt by the corpse. He had stopped searching it while he listened to us talk. I pointed to the dead marine.
"Find anything?" I wondered, more an order than a question.
Raj went back to looking. While he did, Kyle picked up the marine's helmet, which still lay on the floor at our feet. I watched him look it over. The faceplate was a mess, the Edra rounds having torn right through it. I didn't want to imagine what the marine's head must have looked like. I was thinking that it was a small mercy that we only saw the skull. I only half-finished the thought when something caught my eye.
I took the helmet from Kyle, and looked closely at the faceplate. The hole from the Edra rounds was small, not much bigger than a fist. Edra rifles fired very quickly, and the hole was probably from four or five rounds. The rest of the faceplate was untouched, except for a short, shallow gouge on the left, just above eye level.
"Jack?" Kyle asked, putting has hand on my shoulder to get my attention.
I turned to David. "Give me your cutter."
"What for?" he asked.
"Just give me the cutter, David," I repeated insistently.
He pulled the small device from his butt-pack, and passed it along. I set it on a medium setting. That was more than I needed to get through the metal and composites of the helmet, but I wanted to be sure the cut was steady and clean. It took a minute to cut the faceplate away from the rest of the suit. While I waited for the edges of the faceplate to cool, I tossed the cutter back to David.
I looked to Raj. "Keep looking, Raj. Find me something."
I shook his head. "I already opened it up, Jack. No dog tags. They didn't fall down into the suit."
"Then check the pockets," I said, annoyed, "like I told you to."
When the faceplate had cooled off, I held it up to one of the few functioning lights, suspended under the catwalk on the deck above us. I looked through it, just as the marine who had worn it had done. I felt all the blood in my face drain away, and I lowered the plate.
"What is it, man?" Kyle asked, concerned. "Talk to me, buddy."
I showed him the gouge on the faceplate. He looked at it, and then to me. Obviously, he didn't understand, so I held it up to my own faceplate again. His eyes went wide, and he took the shattered object from me.
"Someone want to fill me in?" David asked.
"Okay," Kyle said with more than a little shaking in his voice. "I am officially freaked out, now."
"What?" David demanded.
I pointed to my own faceplate. "When the needle-jumper passed through the time fragment and the ceiling panel blew out, I took a piece of debris in the faceplate. It left a mark." I pointed to the gouge, which I had been too busy to think about since it happened. Then I handed him the dead marine's faceplate. "It's the exact same mark. This is my helmet. That's my CEVA suit. I'm the dead marine."
David shook his head. "No way, Jack. No way. That's coincidence. You're getting upset over pure coincidence. He was in a fire fight, and took rounds to the face. That could be from anything."
"It's not a coincidence, David!" I insisted.
David grabbed the faceplate. "Jack, listen to me! Edra anti-personnel rounds leave all sorts of shrapnel. That's all this is."
"No," I said, pointing to the hole in the plate. "This helmet took a small grouping of shots, right here! They punched straight through, and then out the back of the helmet. No shrapnel."
"He's right, guys," Raj said. "Jack's right."
"What?" Kyle practically yelled.
We all turned to look at Raj. Raj had a set of dog tags in his hands. They were in rough condition, bent and scratched.
"They were in the left hip pocket," he said, pointing.
I grabbed them, read them. I'm pretty sure my heart missed a few beats. I just stood there, trying to keep my breathing under control. It was like visiting my own grave. As a kid, I remember watching an old movie called A Christmas Carol, in which some old coot is shown his own grave, as a way to scare him straight. I remember laughing at how freaked out the old guy was, and how he started blubbering and crying.
I wasn't crying. I wanted to throw up.
They were my dog tags.
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