A small hole, just a slight crackle of light against the blackness of space, and it appeared from beyond the dimensional barrier. From nowhere it screeched across space, a small vessel. The probe used a low power jamming field to hide itself as it raced toward its target. Its engines lay dormant, the wide array of scanners that made up its eyes were closed, only its sensitive ears were alert. The unmanned reconnaissance probe used every trick it had been programmed with to conceal itself and complete its mission. Traveling at just under the speed of light it advanced on its objective, the planet Earth.
Transmissions of any kind, communication, scanner, thruster output, could potentially be detected and divulge the probe’s presence. It simply tumbled its way past the outer bodies of the star system, listening, receiving any signals it might pass through, making note of communication of any kind, trying to pick up any sensor fields that could be pointed its way, looking for anyone whom might be looking for it.
At a staggered interval it sent a coded and masked report back to a set point in ex-space. There the Oronos and her crew waited.
“Here we go,” stated Lieutenant Lorran as the processed information started to appear on her monitor. Colonel Kayliss sat by her side reviewing the data for himself.
There was a painful moment of silence as she assessed the reports being fed to her. The stone faced Vice-General Yanex stood just behind her putting on his usual air of control. He was as anxious as everyone else to have that horrible question answered, but he would never show it. Was there still life on Earth? Was the enemy waiting for them? Were they the only humans left? Did that sole planet somehow survive against insurmountable odds? Did the human race still have a spark of life, or was their long journey for nothing? Others in the COC weren’t as cool. All attention was focused on the Sensor Liaison Officer and her boss. The entire ship, potentially the entire species, hung on their next word.
Colonel Sands had to continually remind himself to breath as he was drawn closer to the young woman. He moved to the adjacent steps to get a closer view, having thought up an excuse to be there. Under the circumstance he could not be denied firsthand knowledge.
The usual back ground noise of equipment cooling fans and the buzzing and beeping of computers at their work seemed loud without the over shadowing voices and intercom traffic. Yes or no? What was it to be? They all hung on that one word.
“This is weird,” Lorran said softly. Kayliss said nothing. His eyes were glued to the monitor. His hands danced across the keyboard as he demanded more information from Tri-S.
“There’s nothing,” Lorran continued. “Nothing sir, no high level fields or transmissions of any kind. There’s only background noise on the upper bands.”
“The second report is coming in,” Kayliss blurted out, his voice torn with stress. He felt all the eyes boring into him and sensed the General breathing down his neck. “There could be a malfunction in the probe, but we’d have to signal it to get a diagnostic report.”
Lorran sounded a lot calmer. “Same thing.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the probe. We’re getting background noise and the star’s signature.”
Yanex stood in silence, his arms folded. He scowled at the information he was getting. He needed answers.
“No Krix signals?” Marcone asked from the nearby Command Station.
“No sir,” Lorran responded with conviction. “I’ve checked the entire spectrum, ours, theirs, or anybody else’s. There’s nothing out there.”
Kayliss glanced up from his console only long enough to say, “The next report should have some visual data.”
“What about a dampening field?” Yanex finally asked. “Could they be jamming our probe, feeding it false data? Could they know we’re here?”
“The probe should detect that,” Lorran explained. “We specifically set it up for that scenario.”
“What about a new detection system?” Yanex asked.
Marcone stepped down from the command station to add his unwelcome opinion. “They’ve had plenty of time to deploy a new system by now.”
Kayliss was quick to respond to what would have been a major blunder on his part. He addressed himself more so to the General. “No sir. The only way they could detect us is with a phased pulse scan. We were watching for that all the way in.”
“I have visual data,” Lorran called out as images became available. The same pictures she was working with appeared on the main view screen for all to see, there were no secrets. Starting as an overall view of the star system, the image closed in on the third planet. From the probe’s angle of view half the planet was in darkness. A closer and enhanced view showed large clusters of lights on the surface.
“Now I’m really confused,” Lorran mumbled louder than she should have.
“Lieutenant?” Yanex inquired.
“Large scale surface illumination would suggest that there are still operating power sources.”
“It could still be a trap, sir,” Marcone urged.
“Visual doesn’t lie,” responded Lorran.
Irritated, Marcone pushed his point. “What about Gateway Station? Your visual should be able to pick that up.”
Although Lorran was on the verge of stepping out of bounds, Kayliss had to standup for her and his department. He only wished he had more conclusive evidence to fire back with. “There’s no sign of any orbiting ships or major objects.”
“What about debris fields?” Yanex asked.
“None in view. There are a number of small satellites, but a detailed surface survey is going to take some time. I can tell you right now, there isn’t a heavy cloud cover to indicate recent large scale orbital bombardment.”
Deep in thought, Yanex began to lethargically pace the floor. He hadn’t anticipated a mystery. He’d been prepared for another scorched planet. This was presenting him with a whole new dilemma. Was it a trap? The Krix had never operated like that before. Why would they go to such measures for a ship they should believe destroyed?
At that very moment, no one needed an answer more than Sands. In his desperate effort to appear calm, he had to lean on a railing. His hands were buried deep in his pockets to hide the shaking. All of the anxiety from the six month trip was coming to a focal point. Each passing moment twisted his guts that much tighter. The sick feeling he had from not being able to eat over the last few days didn’t help either.
As the murmur of other conversations returned, Hellor looked over to see the pale Earthman. He beckoned him over with a slight jerk of his head. The two men had become friends during the long voyage. Sands had discovered that the Major seemed to have a unique perspective on things. He was powerless to do anything but heed the call. With a slight stumble down the steps, Sands made his way over.
Hellor indicated for him to lean over as if he were being shown something on the weapons console.
“Listen to me,” Hellor whispered. “The Krix don’t light their cities, not like we do,”
Sands knew this to be true. He’d strafed enemy cities, and gave a nod of agreement.
“It’s not a burnt planet,” Hellor continued, “we’re still in the game here.”
“All right, I know,” Sands said softly, although he didn’t really believe it.
“I’m cool,” Sands said with a quiver in his voice. “So long as I don’t throw-up.”
The two men shared a short, but welcome laugh.
As Yanex paced the floor, Marcone grilled Kayliss for more information. His tone was almost accusatory. Yanex stopped and stood staring up at the main view screen. None of it made sense to him. Even if the war had somehow come to a peaceful conclusion, there should be some kind of detection grid up. Ships should be in orbit, any ships. The probe had limited capabilities, but it should see something. As much as he didn’t want to risk exposing the ship to detection, he had to have answers. After a few more moments of contemplation his mind was made up. They had come that far, they would take a closer look.
“Major Ratoe, report for orders,” the General called out.
Ratoe jumped to his feet and hurried back to stand before him at attention. Yanex was already prepared for him. The long voyage had afforded him the opportunity to plan for a few scenarios. He called up a prepared hologram. A three dimensional map of the star system materialized over the display table in front of the Command Station.
“Drop us here,” he said firmly and pointed to a spot on the outer edge of the system. “Use the sixth planet to obscure our drop point and approach. Maintain an arching course into the system, nice and quiet.”
A shiver ran through Ratoe. An exact shift point was difficult under the best of circumstances. He would have to coordinate jamming with a rapid deceleration, while trying to lessen the distortion of a full phase shift. With the ship at a full shift, he would have to calculate the drop point and go in blind. Then run a course that kept Saturn between them and Earth as they decelerated and approached.
He had few options though. The General wasn’t asking if he could, he was telling him to do it. Ratoe almost opened his mouth to ask a question, but thought better of it. He would have to demonstrate that the General’s confidence and promotion were not misplaced, he hoped.
“Yes sir,” were the only words to leave Ratoe’s mouth. He made a detour to the sensor station on his way back. “I need a nav’ update.”
Lorran shook her head, “No.”
That stopped the Major in his tracks. Accurate information was vital to what he was going to attempt.
“I’d really rather not slam us into a planet,” Ratoe stated.
“This is all wrong,” Lorran blurted out in frustration.
“What is it, Lieutenant?” Kayliss asked. After being grilled by Marcone, he was in none too good a mood.
“The planetary positions are off. System navigation is all screwed up.”
Kayliss glanced down at the data briefly. “Just update it with the probe input.”
“It’s not just a little off,” she persisted, “they’re way off. The planets are not where they’re supposed to be at this time of the cycle.”
“Ya sure we’re in the right system?” Ratoe mused, much to Kayliss’ ire.
“We’re definitely in the right system,” Lorran answered. “The orbital tracks are correct. It’s just that the planets aren’t where they should be.”
“Update the data and feed it,” Kayliss commanded.
“Hey,” Ratoe said, “I gotta have accurate information for this.”
“You’ll have it, Major,” said Kayliss. “We can do a five percent shift out of ex-space to confirm the data from here. That shouldn’t be picked up by anyone.”
“Yes,” pushed Lorran, “but, the planets rotate at a set speed, they should...”
“Just update the data with Tri-S!” Kayliss barked. “I’ll have them look into it later.”
“Yes sir,” Lorran conceded. She knew she was right, there was something terribly wrong. She did as ordered. However, she was not told to drop the matter.
One and half billion miles from earth, just within the orbital track of Uranus, the Oronos reappeared from ex-space. The massive gas giant Saturn was kept between her and Earth as she raced backwards into the system, using the main engines to slow down.
Jamming fields helped hide the ship from all scanning fields except enhanced neutron visual. The ship’s straight approach into the solar system would surmount those types of systems. If the ship were traveling across the plain of the system if would be easily seen streaking across the stars. Headed straight towards the most likely source of observation points, the Oronos would be just another point of light in the sky. Eventually its unfamiliarity to the star field and slowly growing form would warrant alarm, but not before she was well into the system.
“Secure from ex-space, Commander,” Ratoe proudly announced. “Maintaining approach course as ordered.”
“Good,” commented Yanex. That was all the praise Ratoe needed. The subdued cheers and congratulations of his co-workers emphasized it.
Kayliss had returned to Tri-S and Yanex called him up on one of the monitors. “We have three cenda (seven and a half hours) before we reach Saturn and have to change course, Colonel. You have that long to complete your scans.”
“Yes sir,” Kayliss responded. “We’re pulling in everything we can and running a full visual sweep, including the nearby systems. If there’s anything out there, we’ll find it.”
Yanex cut off the channel without another word. His troubled expression betrayed his normally hidden feelings. Seeing this shared feeling, Marcone stated, “They should be able to come up with some answers by then.”
“Commander, this is Com’ Liaison,” Lieutenant Nather signaled over the intercom system.
“Communication reports they are receiving input.”
Yanex turned back toward the young officer. “Is it com’ traffic?”
“No sir, they say it’s more like civilian signals. Major Tollyn says you should see it for yourself.” The man suddenly remembered whom he was speaking with. “Sir, he requests your presence in the communication center, sir.”
Curiosity drew the General toward the rear of the COC. On the raised walkway that ran along the back wall, a wide sliding door lay open giving him access to the communication center. Much like the other sub-command sections, the room was crowded with equipment and personnel. Monitors lining the walls, set into consoles, and hanging from the open meshed ceiling, all shown different versions of the same bizarre images. Music, images of everyday life, advertising, and most important of all, news broadcasts.
Yanex paused a moment to look around at all of the various pictures that brightened the otherwise dimly lit chamber. The sounds of melodies and strange languages filled his ears. As he made his way to the center of the room, he heard a crewman from Earth commenting on one of the shows. “I remember this show,” she stated as she pointed at the image of a strange looking spacecraft with a large round disk.
Tollyn stood to greet the stern faced General.
“How did we miss this?” Yanex grumbled.
“It’s on the lower bands, sir,” Tollyn was quick to explain. “Those frequencies are inefficient and no longer used. The probe may not have been set to check them.”
“No longer used? Then what’s this?”
Tollyn took a deep breath. “Well sir,” he hesitated, “let me start with what I’m sure of. This is a direct signal. It’s coming right from the source, a number of sources, all on the planet. It’s not a harmonic or something that’s been bouncing around for many cycles.”
“Anything else you’re sure of?”
“Not much,” Tollyn admitted. His attempt to lighten the moment failed miserably.
Tollyn paused a bit to compose his thoughts.
“I’m not saying I believe it just yet. We’re still running checks with the historical files, double checking events, broadcast schedules, allowing for distance to our position, and what not.”
“Out with it!” Yanex demanded
“There are date codes on some of the transmissions, and a lot of the news broadcasts state the date in their beginnings,” Tollyn reluctantly explained.
“If this data is accurate, and we’re still checking it, these signals are from the Earth cycle 2009. That’s 4221 by our calendar. If this is right, we’ve traveled ninety-four cycles into the past.”
Yanex was stunned by what he was hearing. He couldn’t believe it. His mind went blank. For the first time in his life, he was completely dumfounded.
“I want proof.” He poked Tollyn in the chest.
“Yes sir, we’re still working on it.”
Yanex glanced about before turning to leave. Crewmen were gathering around monitors and speculating wildly at what they were seeing. People from other sections were starting to filter in.
“I suppose it’s too late to put a cap on this?” the General mused.
“It would appear so, sir.”
As Lorran read the next startling report from Tri-S, she was almost hesitant to relay it, knowing that only Marcone was on station. In an official tone she stated, “We’re picking up long-range signals from some of the neighboring systems. They appear to be navigational beacons.”
Her voice cracked with the next words she uttered. “Including Aultra.”
“Aultra?” repeated Marcone as he approached. Murmured speech echoed his astonishment throughout the COC. Word of the Earth transmissions had just hit the intercom channels and was racing throughout the ship.
“That beacon was shut down decades ago,” said Marcone condescendingly.
Ignoring his slight, she continued reading, “They’re also getting Carmella, Darcane, Payson, and Borrad.”
“That’s just not possible,” Marcone mumbled in disbelief.
Another flashing message on the monitor grabbed the Lieutenant’s attention.
“Now what?” demanded Marcone.
Despite her reluctance, Lorran read the report. “The probe is detecting what appears to be a scanning field.”
“A scanning field!” exploded Marcone. “You said this system was clear!”
“It’s a staggered pulse,” she tried to explain, “an irregular pattern. It has to be measured over time. There’s only been three cycles of it. The probe hasn’t been out there long enough...”
“This is completely unacceptable,” Marcone bellowed. All other conversation in the room ceased.
“Your incompetence has exposed this ship to detection and endangered all of us.”
Lorran finally lost her cool. “We’re masked,” she shot back. “This wouldn’t have picked us up!”
“Watch your tone with me, Lieutenant.”
Seeing a need to defuse things Hellor interrupted. “Colonel, I know this signal.”
“Get Kayliss up here,” Marcone barked before addressing the Major.
“He’s on the line,” Lorran responded.
“I want him here! And see if you can manage to find a source.”
Lorran’s hands were shaking as she turned back to her computer. She didn’t know whether to scream or cry.
“What is it Major?”
“It’s an old trick, Colonel,” stated Hellor. “You stagger out the pattern to make it harder to detect. Your detection time is a lot longer, but your transmission is very hard to spot.”
Marcone wasn’t interested in listening to Hellor’s justification for his girlfriend. “Whose trick is it?”
“It’s Delphian, sir”
“Delphian? There are no more Delphians, Major.”
“That doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t be using it. We used it prior to the new systems making it obsolete.”
Hellor added in a softer tone, “There’s really no way this would’ve picked us up.”
Marcone didn’t care; Tri-S should’ve known it was there before they dropped out of ex-space. There were no excuses in his eyes. Mistakes like that cost lives. A mistake had cost him once.
“We have a source, Colonel.” stated Lorran without looking up. “It’s in orbit of the Earth’s moon.”
The image on the main screen zoomed in to the dark side of the small barren rock that orbited the third planet. A shadow flanked by two smaller objects was enhanced to reveal a ship. The long body of the vessel was sloped in the front and had two engine pods on either side of the stern. A raised structure on the back overlooked the fuselage.
Marcone stood in awe, he recognized the ship immediately. “It’s one of ours.”
However he didn’t believe it. The Ittala Class had long since replaced these ships.
“Tactical records confirm,” Hellor read. “Aultrian Maya Class Carrier, along with two Alpha Class Destroyers.”
Hellor paused a moment. “I have an identification marker, UDT Attragone.”
Marcone was puzzled. “That ship was destroyed over fifty cycles ago.”
His ear caught an announcement by one of the security officers. The General had just reentered the COC. He turned to face the approaching man, a look of confusion on his face.
“What’s going on, sir? We’re picking up the old nav’ system.”
Yanex glanced about at the faces that looked upon him for an answer, an explanation to what was happening to them. He didn’t have one.
“Check the date codes on those beacon signals,” he said in a dry emotionless voice. As the situation was becoming more and more clear to him, the need for calm rational decisions was paramount, a mistake could be devastating.
“All the time delays match,” Lorran read the reply to his request. “They indicate that it’s the hundredth and twenty-seventh day of 4221.”
An upward look of confusion quickly turned to wide-eyed realization. She swung back to her console and went to work. It all made suddenly sense to her. She watched her monitor as a display of the planets spun backwards. The date on the bottom of the screen counted down until a match was made. It made sense to her, as much as it could. She would not go through the normal procedure of telling her boss first, this was too big. She jumped from her seat and approached the two men who had moved over to the Command Station. They were trying to convince each other that there was some other explanation; they couldn’t have possibly traveled into the past, when she interrupted.
“It’s true sir,” Lorran stated with all the conviction she could muster. “The planetary alignment confirms it. The planets in this system are where they should be for this date.”
“That would explain the navigational correction we needed to make,” Marcone said slowly.
“A major navigational correction, sir,” said Lorran.
Yanex thought a moment. “Does this account for the initial positioning errors when we,” he paused, “after the event, or accident, whatever the hell it was?”
“Most likely sir” Lorran responded.
The General shook his head then stepped away. He slowly paced the floor in the middle of the center, deep in thought. With all of his training and experience, all the battles, real and scenario, nothing had prepared him for this. He had no idea how to proceed. As bad as the war had always been, he always had a concept of what to do next.
“I want a section head meeting in a cenda,” he ordered.
“Let me get this straight,” Sands gestured wildly, “you believe this?”
Aurora shrugged and said nonchalantly, “Yeah.”
“I can’t believe that you,” Sands waved at her as they stepped into the transport tube followed by Lazell, “you of all people believe this, without question.”
“Sure, why not.”
“Because you’re the most cynical person on this ship. Shit, you’re the most cynical individual I’ve ever known.”
The level indicator on the wall counted down as the car dropped through the shaft toward the bar.
Aurora donned one of her sarcastic faces. “Cynical? I’m not cynical. I just think we’re all gonna die.”
Lazell joined her in a bout of laughter, which turned into a wide-eyed look of concern when Aurora turned back to the Colonel. Sands chuckled and shook his head.
“What’s the difference?” Aurora continued. “We’re still screwed.”
“There’s no war,” Lazell said meekly, “we can go home.”
“The war hasn’t started yet. Besides, it’s a hundred cycles in the past. We can’t go back it’ll change the future.”
The doors flew open and the two officers walked out into the belly lounge. Lazell lingered behind mumbling out loud, “What’s wrong with that?”
The matter was being discussed in more detail throughout the bar. Wild speculations on time travel flew about the room. Sands cringed at the thought that she was right. As difficult as it was for him to understand, his world was somehow gone. His parents hadn’t even been born yet. How could he possible go back to that alien and even more primitive world? He had no idea of how he was supposed to feel. Though somehow not dead, everyone he knew was gone. They might as well have been dead, it would have been easier.
“What happens to us?” he asked while dropping into his regular seat.
“It’s hard to say,” responded Marcus. He and Talya were already there. “We can’t alter the events that will affect our traveling back in time.”
“So we just sit back and watch our entire nation be exterminated, right?” Talya snorted bitterly. They had apparently been arguing for some time.
“No,” Marcus was starting to show the stress of taking the unpopular stance. Being the voice of reality had its drawbacks. The truth of the matter was he just wasn’t sure what was going to happen, nobody knew for certain.
“We can’t do anything that will change the battle at Carmella. This ship has to travel back in time, otherwise we cause a paradox. We could be eradicated. It’s the old adage, if you travel back in time and kill your parents, you would not be able to go back in the first place.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Aurora.
“In theory, a paradox could have far reaching effects. It could wipe us out just as surely as the Krix did, or rather will.”
Aurora sat back with her hands folded across her stomach, “So if we don’t do anything, we’re all dead, if we do, we may be dead.”
“I’m willin’ to take that chance,” spouted Lazell to hardly any notice.
“Wait a deda,” stated Talya, “you’re missing the point. We’re sitting on over a hundred cycles worth of technology here. The Ittala Class Heavy Carrier was the most powerful warship in the known galaxy when it was built. Here, now, we’d be practically invincible.”
She glanced around the table as interest stirred.
“We know when it’s going to start. We know where they’re going to strike. We know where they’re from this time. We didn’t know that before. We could win the war out right. Hit them when they’re at their weakest.”
Marcus shook his head at that. “It’s not all that simple. I lived through this time. I’m a young man right now. This is a very turbulent era in our history. The death of Emperor Dayson is a catalyst for a number of events. Not to mention the present war with Delphia.”
“That’s just what I’m talking about. How many people were murdered by the Delphians when they invaded Darcane? We can stop that. With this ship, we could take Delphia out of the game right now.”
“You have no concept of what this time is like,” Marcus explained. “There’s a delicate balance of power among all of the nations in this sector. Espionage and shooting wars breakout over one side having the slightest technological advantage. Introducing this ship will throw that balance on its side.”
“Yeah,” Talya exclaimed, “in our favor. If we take out Delphia, the rest of this sector won’t dare mess with us. Then in a few cycles, we’ll be ready for the Krix. After they’ve rid us of the Dynasty of course. Or at least softened them up a bit.”
“You’re insane,” Marcus said. “You’re taking a rock and smashing a mirror, thinking you can predict how the pieces are going to fall because they fell a certain way before. I’m telling you, it just doesn’t work that way. Once you make even the slightest change in the time line everything is different, all bets are off. There’s no way to predict the outcome. That’s if there’s no paradox.”
The cold reality of the situation was becoming more and more clear to Sands.
“There won’t be a Grand Alliance,” he muttered.
“Oh, there’ll be an alliance all right. The weaker powers will join together to fight what they see as a great threat.”
“Us,” Sands said slowly.
“People,” Talya smiled, “I just don’t see that it’s going to be a problem.”