"Sectors 97 through 102 scanned negative, continue with sector 103 through 107", came the monotone voice of the ship's computer.
"Yes, and continue until a positive match is found, or until you reach sector 200." Jack replied. Of all the personalities he had communicated with over the years, nothing was as boring as talking to a computer without a personality chip. It was his own fault. He could have afforded to have one installed before the trip, but it made it easier to do what he had to in the end. No personality equals no guilt when you scrap it. Still, this was about enough to make a person step out of an air lock without a suit. Everything was pretty much on auto for now. All he really had to do was pass time until he-- no, the ship-- found what he was looking for. That or go back home, face possible charges and throw three years of research away. Nope; instead he'd ease back into the seat, take another dose of retro-sleep (which slowed your body down to made the time pass quicker) and reminisce about how he got into this in the first place.
* * * * *
It all started when he was on leave at Takos IV in a small tavern called the Nebula Club on the bad side of Thelokar, Takos IV's largest city. Thelokar was a haven for swindlers, thieves, gamblers and other kinds of popular scum. Jack was there because he wanted to buy a new identity for himself, to start fresh. No hassles, no debts and no problems. He was just about to get hooked up when all hell broke loose. Thomas, one of the local drunks, came in making the rounds for handouts. Jack almost felt sorry for him. He'd heard that once Thomas was a fairly good pilot. Slowly, over time and a couple of busted marriages, he had crawled into the bottle and never come out. Typically, he usually found someone to feel sorry for him enough to buy a couple of drinks. Unfortunately for Thomas, tonight wasn't typical. Just as Jack was handing over payment for his new identity, Thomas went sailing across the room. Ducking to avoid being hit, he looked towards where Thomas had come from.
"I told you to get away from me! I'll split your skull if you bother me again!" bellowed a giant of a man from across the tavern.
" Aww, just leave him alone, Carl. He doesn't mean any harm and you've had too much to drink." came a reply from the next table. Jack knew that voice. It was Bill Watson. Rumor had it, he could find you an implant cheap, if you didn't mind being the second owner.
"I'll do what I feel like!" spat Carl. "I've had enough of you and I'm gonna teach you to mind your own business!" In a rage, Carl picked up a chair and hurled it at Bill. Suddenly, the tavern was alive with motion. Tables overturned, bottles broke and you could hear the faint hum of a weapon powering up. Jake took this as his cue to leave. He scooped up his new identi-cards and headed for the door. Lying next to the doorway where Carl had thrown him sprawled Thomas. One of his eyes was swollen shut; the other looked up at Jack. Not being totally heartless, he dragged him outside and over to an alley.
"You ought to be able to sleep it off here, pal. I've got places to go and people to see." Jack said
"Wait!" Thomas whispered as he clung to Jack's sleeve.
"Look, I don't have time for this. I couldn't leave you laying there. I guess I felt sorry for ya."
"No, please, listen...I found out last week I'm dying. I'd always hoped to get back out there and claim my fortune, but it's too late for me now; I drank my chance away. I came here tonight to tell someone... Since you helped me, I'm going to tell you." Thomas wheezed.
"Right, you have about as much chance of having a fortune as I have being the lord of the Data Sphere." Jack snickered.
"No! Believe me, I've been to the Dead Zone. There are things there, boy. Find them and you'll be rich!" Thomas pleaded. "Check the archives on Clastira, and t-take thissss..."
"Really, I gotta go. Dry out and go......" Jack was aware that Thomas could no longer hear him, he would no longer hear anyone anymore. Thomas had indeed passed on. One of the bad things about being psionically aware was that you could feel someone's consciousness leaves their body when they died. As he laid the dead man's arms across his chest he noticed a key drop from one hand. "Rest in peace old man." Thomas picked up the key. " Maybe I will take a look at those archives" he mused.
* * * * *
"Sectors 103-200 scanned negative. Enter search parameters. You have been in Retro-Sleep for twelve standard days." The computer droned on,"It is the scheduled time for you to exercise, take nourishment and perform self maintenance. You should wake now." As per programming, Jack received an auto-injection to help counter the effect of the drug.
"Ouch! Yeah, yeah, I'm getting up. Search sectors 201-300. I guess you don't need a personality chip to nag!" Jack retorted. Slowly he stood up rubbing his shoulder. After using the ship's facilities he did a few stretching exercises and choked down some nutrient pills. "If I never see one of these pill dinners again after this It'll be too soon!" he muttered as he lay back, took some more Retro-Sleep and faded back to the past.
* * * * *
It took a while to get to Clastira. Not wanting to make himself noticeable, he took planetary public transportation to arrive at the archive. The archives of Clastira were once a well-respected place, but as sometimes things do, it fell out of popularity as the planet's economy spiraled downward. It was favored by the underworld because the only identification you needed was enough credit to rent a storage space and enough credit to pay your debt when you returned with your key. He figured Thomas might owe a bit but he had a gut feeling it might be worth it to check it out.
"Thomas Parker, renter of space 43782, you owe 396 credits. Do you have payment or do you wish to forfeit the space and it's contents?" The clerk said blandly.
"No, I'll pay. Um, it's been a while since I've been here. Where exactly is space 43782?" Jack asked.
" Right, a lot of people haven't been here in a while. Directions will be another 10 credits." The clerk snorted sarcastically.
"Not a problem, serves me right for forgetting. Thanks." Jack paid the man and was on his way. The directions, while helpful, were almost illegible. "Lets see, 43778, 79, 80, ah... here it is, 43782." muttered Jack to himself. It had indeed been a while since Thomas had been there. The lock was almost seized up, but it eventually opened. "Now, let's see what was so all fired important. It better be worth all those credits!"
The storage drawer was full of junk. Old vids, some ill kept service documents and other assorted trash. Having wondered why he believed Thomas in the first place, he swallowed his disappointment and began to dig through the mess to see if something in there had any value. By the handful, he tossed junk onto the floor. Near the bottom he found a journal. "Well, this will give me something to read on the way back while I kick myself for being an idiot." As he reached for the book his hand bumped into something hard. Surprised, he peered into the drawer. All he could see was the book. Slowly he moved his had in and across the bottom. As before, he touched an object. This time he grabbed it and took it out.
"Well, I'll be..." Jack had never seen anything like it. Or more correctly, he didn't see anything in his hand at all. He just felt it. Slowly he turned the object over. It wasn't until it was completely turned over that he could see any of it. Apparently it was some kind of metal. The side he couldn't see felt like it had once been riveted to something. The other had a smooth irregular feel to it like it had been fused together. He turned it back over and the object vanished from sight but he could still feel it. Looking around Jack saw with relief that he was alone, and decided to stash the strange object in his pocket before anyone saw. "Thomas actually found himself some cloaked metal! I've never seen anything like it and I doubt anyone else has either or there would be fleets of ships with it." Jack thought to himself. "Now I really want to look at that journal. But in private." He casually cleaned up most of the mess and in the process slipped the journal under his coat. Quickly, but not so much as to draw undue attention to himself, he left the archive and caught the next transport back to where he had left his ship.
The journey back to the ship seemed to take forever. Jack could barely resist the urge to take the journal out of his pocket and read it. No, he waited this long; he could wait until his ship was on autopilot and safely away from Takos VI. Finally he arrived, did a quick pre-flight check, paid his docking fee and took off. Once on autopilot, he slowly opened the journal. After reading the title he knew he'd hit the jackpot: MY EXPERIENCES IN THE DEAD ZONE-The journey of Thomas Parker
Jack felt giddy with anticipation. Thomas described his flight to the fabled dead zone. There were star maps, notes, and his flight path. Apparently, Thomas had flown with a freelance mercenary fighter pilot wing and had been to every oddball place in the galaxy. After a couple of good years he wanted a big score. Something that he could retire on and live to a ripe old age. Since he was a small boy he'd heard about the Dead Zone. As he traveled closer to the galaxy rumored to hide the fabled Zone, he began to encounter pilots (usually drunken ones) that told wild stories of others that had tried to go there and had never returned. Some, they figured, died trying, but others just might not wish to be found, and were probably living the high life on some remote isle in Unkulunklu, safe from prying eyes.
Thomas must have spent years sorting fact from fiction, but he was finally able to narrow the search. At first his search in the target systems was fruitless, but just as he was about to exhaust his supplies he came across a remote world. Unlike the others, it appeared able to support life. As he got closer to the surface, he could see the remains of buildings and what appeared to be some sort of landing strip. Beside himself with excitement he began landing procedures and initiated an environment scan. Although the atmosphere could support humanoid life the planet was barren with barely any plant life to speak of. As he was about to rest on the surface, however, his ship hit something neither he nor the ship's sensors had detected. After settling, he cautiously inspected what had damaged his ship. It was an invisible substance. Thomas broke out his laser torch and slowly cut a piece off. It was a very weird substance. He could see the side he cut on but if he turned it over it was still invisible. The invisible side felt like it had been machined and had what seemed to be rivets or some other fastener on it. Thomas was ecstatic! All he had to do was make it back home and sell it to the highest bidder... After he repaired his ship.
The invisible metal had indeed crippled the ship, but it was reparable. It just took a long, arduous time to do so. Too long. By the time he had finished, Thomas had used up most of his remaining supplies, with no hope of replenishing them as the land in the area was a parched wasteland. Not wanting to give up, he took a desperate gamble. He had thought he might run close on supplies so he had acquired a bit of Lotus 7 before he left on his journey. He would push the envelope and travel back to known space on autopilot after he set the flight plan. The on-board computer would account for detected meteor showers, comets and asteroids while Lotus 7 slowed his body down to a crawl. If all worked out he should wake just before he arrived.
"The poor bastard!' Jack thought. He now knew what had ruined Thomas' career. Lotus 7 was put on the market far too soon. The drug had serious side effects. Not in the least was a steady loss of mental faculties if abused, eventually leading to cerebral hemorrhaging. Lotus 7 had been pulled off the market some time ago, but unfortunately, not soon enough for Thomas. A couple of years ago, ASP Technocracy scientists came up with a more tested version, Retro-Sleep.
The journal spoke of how Thomas woke with a severe headache and stashed the metal and journal in the archive for safe keeping, planning to return for it.
Unfortunately for Thomas, his condition worsened. He turned to drink as a cheap way to ease the pain, but he never flew again. For all the good it did him, he might as well have stayed in the Dead Zone.
* * * * *
Suddenly, Jack was fully awake and in agonizing pain. He curled up in the seat and cradled his head between his hands. He could feel the presence of countless others fading from this plane of existence. It was like when Thomas died, but a thousand times magnified. He had heard of psychic shock like this happening to psi-sensitive people in the midst of mass carnage or war.
"Positive match found in sector 231. Disengaging auto-pilot and reverting to manual control in fifteen standard minutes." came the computer's report.
Pulling himself together, Jack slowly stood up. The echoes in his mind were about to drive him mad. With a hand that visibly trembled, he reached up into a storage compartment and took out a small vial of turquoise liquid, his last dose of Psiaric. Steeling himself, he quickly drank the contents. The psychic residue gradually faded to a dull roar. He hadn't planned on using the psi-dampening fluid on his trip, but it had come in handy just the same. He would definitely need to get some more when he returned to known space. It was just too darn useful in stopping psi-seizures, or allowing psi-sensitive people to pass by scanning devices, which is what he usually used it for.
As his mind gradually eased into blessed calm, he took control of the ship. Ahead lay the planet the computer had found. Possibly it was Thomas' planet. As he went in closer he saw the ruined buildings amidst a desolate wasteland that Thomas had described in his journal. Cautiously, he slowly set the ship down, well away from what looked like a landing strip. As the ship settled uneventfully on the planet's surface, Jack let out a sigh of relief. He had made it in one piece!
"Will I need an Enviro-Suit to survive outside?" Jack nervously asked the computer.
"Negative. This planet will sustain human life. A survey report will be compiled and delivered upon our return." said the ship's computer.
"Uh, that won't be necessary... I mean, oh, never mind. Go ahead and do what you gotta do." Jack said, almost regrettably. What the ship's computer didn't know right now wouldn't hurt it...yet. He was definitely glad he didn't buy a personality chip for it.
After gathering up his supplies, Jack reached for the air lock disengage switch. Nervously, he paused to catch his breath. The thought of walking amidst ancient, alien ruins and encountering the unknown was daunting. Still, adventure aside, if he didn't go outside he wouldn't get rich. Flushed with adrenaline he stepped outside the craft.
As usual, the ship's computer was correct. The environment was livable, albeit on the nippy side. Jack donned his jacket and set out cautiously for a ruined tower a short distance away. The building appeared to be constructed out of an opaque, crystalline material. Someone, or something, had destroyed the upper part of the tower and shards covered the ground around its foundation. On one side of the building there was a recessed area, possibly an entrance. He cautiously checked the other sides of the tower and looked over at the other buildings. None of the other ruined structures were as intact as this one. Being careful to avoid stepping on the shards, Jack walked over to what he hoped was a door.
When he got closer, Jack noticed that there was a door-like outline in the recessed area. Whoever built this must have been on the large side, or brought large things in through here, as the outline was one and a half meters wide and two and a half meters tall. Pausing to gather his nerve he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. This place had the feeling of a tomb. Cautiously, he touched the outline. Much to his surprise it started to glow. After jumping backwards and nearly falling down, Jack saw the door start to slide away. Before him lay a strange sort of room. The walls had a soft textured covering with huge sleeping compartments built into them on Jack's left and right. The center of the room was dominated by what appeared to be a star chart and two inactive viewing screens. Next to the opposite wall there was a ramps going up to the next level and down below ground. The walls gave off an arcane light of their own so he decided to put away his portable light. Because the ramp going up had a couple of nasty cracks in it and appeared to lead up to the destroyed part of the tower Jack decided to explore below first. He was glad he was packing protection. Carefully, he descended the ramp.
The lower level appeared to be some sort of control room. There were several crystalline-topped tables, more star-charts and a large viewing screen on the far wall. While he was taking all of it in, Jack felt something behind him touch his mind, something alien! Unconsciously Jack whirled and put his hand on his blaster. A myriad of color flooded his psyche as the alien bypassed his first line of mental defenses and penetrated his mind. Reality swayed and Jack felt a wave of nausea pass over him. He had communicated with telepaths on rare occasion, but when he did at least they had a common point of reference, be it language, race or like knowledge, which was fortunate for him as he was relatively inexperienced in dealing with psychically talented beings. He had learned a few mental defenses, but this...this was totally alien to him. It almost had a sort of deja-vu feeling, like he had been here before, or possibly he had traveled back into the past. As his mind's eye opened, he started to understand what the being was trying to send to him. As he became accustomed to the effect of looking into the alien's mind, he learned more about his surroundings. Apparently he was at base Seventy-Three "B" on the planet Poltaris, in the Daxiri galixy that was part of the Vashiri empire. Although you couldn't tell it now, Poltaris used to be a lush world that was barely touched by the planetary base. Although well versed in the arts of war, they took care not to destroy the eco-system where they colonized. The base was in harmony with the planet.
Slowly, Jack opened his eyes. In all his encounters, he had never seen a creature quite like this one. It was tall, and appeared to be insectoid in origin. Two long eyestalks protruded from somewhere near the top of its chitinous exoskeleton. Appendages too numerous to count sprouted along the right and left side of its body. Some appeared to support the creature, and others moved icons on what appeared to be some kind of computer. Both of the eyestalks were pointed at Jack. A transparent, golden nimbus surrounded the top of the creature's body; some sort of psionic link. Jack had seen this effect before, but not exactly like this
"Shouldn't you be out there with the other pilots?" the Vashiri spoke to his mind. "That's why you're here, aren't you? You know we send out the draft to other members of the Alliance: They send ships and pilots to fly them so our system can repel the invaders. So you must be from Ceta-Alpha then?"
"Uh, yeah", Jack replied weakly. There was NO mention in the journal of anything living on the planet. Perhaps someone had colonized this world since Thomas had left. It seemed incredible to travel all the way here just to get drafted to fight in somebody else's war. "No...that can't be right." Jack rejected the idea even as it formed. The alien had shown him his planet as being lush and green, not the desert it was now; the buildings as being intact. Besides, he had never heard of the Vashiri Empire. Maybe they were stuck in some sort of time-flux...Hoping to gain something from the encounter, Jack tried to gently probe the alien's mind, to no avail.
"So, then you should go topside and join the Ceta-Apha squadron. I assume you can show yourself out then. I have other...." The alien was cut off in mid sentence by the wail of a distant siren. "The invaders must have broken through! There's no time to go to your ship... take cover and make peace with your maker while you still ca...AAIEEEAUGH!!!!" The alien cried out in intense pain. Jack could see blisters form on its body and steam started to issue from it. He tried to take cover under one of the tables but found that they offered little protection. He started to panic as he felt his body warm like some hellish fever. As the pain intensified, his consciousness faded away.
Slowly, life crawled back into Jack's body. Gradually, he realized that the Psiaric was wearing off and he would have to get off this world soon or risk dying here of psychic shock. Still recovering his faculties, he looked around the room. The alien was gone, and whereas before he could hear the sirens wailing, now there was only silence. "Did I really go back in time, or was it only my over-active imagination?" Jack asked himself. When he looked to where the alien had been standing, however, he saw a faint glow coming from the computer monitor. As he shook off the last of the shock, he went to the monitor. To his astonishment it glowed brighter when he came closer to it. When he gazed at the screen, a now familiar golden nimbus enveloped his head. Images, appearing slowly at first, then more rapidly as he became accustomed to it, flooded his mind. Mentally, he accessed the alien computer's database and learned of the ancient race that once inhabited the planet. After what seemed like an eternity, he backed away from the monitor.
"I can't believe it." Jack muttered to himself. "Those Vashiri were light years ahead of what we have now. It hardly seems possible that such a powerful race could be wiped out as it was. All those deaths...the psychic reverberations are incredible." Jack's practical nature then pushed aside his ruminations. "Just a fraction of what I've absorbed here can make me rich beyond my wildest dreams! Or very dead, if I don't handle it properly" Jack began to feel very queasy, an effect of the Psiaric wearing off. Since he didn't know how long before another seizure would hit him, he had to leave right away. Apparently, he hadn't recovered completely from the psychic shock, as it seemed like an eternity before he made it back to his ship. Once aboard he completed his pre-flight tests and exited the planet. When he had safely left the planet behind, he removed the plate that covered the ship's transmitter and disabled its ability to send messages. The ship's computer definitely did NOT need to send a survey report of where he had been.
Slowly he eased back into the seat and prepared to take another dose of Retro-Sleep. As he surrendered to the drug, Jack smiled. It had been a long journey, but he had a feeling the real adventure was just about to begin.