The final destination was a galaxy segment rich in stars, three of them containing Keplerites in their systems. After final emergence ETSS54 settled and began mineral extraction from an asteroid to fully deploy itself. When it had been completed it launched away from the body and floated in space, a permanent outpost of the ingenuity of humanity. Curiosity soon followed.
It was a sensation very unfamiliar to Zyana. Being out here, so further away from everything that had, now she was realizing, been a foundation in her life. She was quiet most of the time as she felt she didn't have much to contribute. Ashley's orders were intimately familiar. Clear, defined and easy to follow. One of the few things that made her feel relaxed and assured of herself. The long texts of the Flight Rules were a challenge. The code for space travel was immense and dealt with details that sometimes were going beyond the limits of pettiness, she thought. The revisions and reassessments provided an academic challenge that was alien to Zyana. Quite unlike the soldier life so far. It was comfortable back then with the legion, maybe perhaps dangerously so. After all she pushed for re-evaluation and reposition. Now she was no longer keeping peace with an iron fist, but scrambling over the unknowns of space. On the forefront of exploration, she wasn't one of the curious.
Zyana released a small pulse to one of the bots and it relayed the message to the swarm instantly. They piled around her in a carpet at her legs and followed. She had a few basic commands, encoded in protein sequences and was able to direct simple instructions. Chewing a power bar she glanced at the reconstitutor. They wouldn't be able to take all of the equipment with them. Not in a single go. She activated the holo screen on her wrist and the ship's schematic with the big black spot in the middle gleamed. Four bright dots showed all crew present. She made for infirmary.
Serving under Commander Ashley was a privilege. Chief had an ubiquitous record and was a hardened veteran. The boys were making the atmosphere more fun. Brick was not a soldier, but he was a curious one and Zyana had showed him how to handle their SEE better. He had even tinkered a bit with the thing and actually made it's arm movement smoother. Zyana had never seen a truly autonomous AI. At first she wasn't sure how to address Mnemo, but the respectful manner of the robot's behaviour had really warmed the ice through. This deep space barge might prove to be more exciting than Zyana had anticipated at first. Entering the small infirmary she swept the room with a single look. A mess. The SEE suit was dumped there, the pulse cannon piled on top. A set of plasmid explosives, electrocutor, ram rifles and a three combat carapaces. The swarm went for the SEE and she grabbed couple of suites.
Brick and Mnemo had disassembled the Zorgathron and were hauling it on the drop ship. Ashley had just finished reporting to HQ.
"Odd that nothing came out of the scans," Brick opened."Now I feel like a guinea pig.", he smirked.
"We might as well look like one, for that thing out there," Zyana's voice cackled.
"As inappropriate as it may seem, I am deeply fascinated by it," Mnemo linked in."I am quite positive that it also is afraid of us. Even as capable as it might seem to be, it's still holed up there. It might not want to go out."
"The thing put us in the dark. It deserves to stay there," Brick said.
"Considering the difference of opinion, I still say that it might be after a contact."
Brick made a face expressing a wide "Oooo".
"You two don't have anything else to blab about?!" Ashley sternly voiced in as Zyana came in, hauling her load; the swarm skittering next to her. Brick looked at her with appeal and silently motioned his head towards the door. Was he admitting that only a woman can deal with it? The notion was entertaining and Zyana allowed herself a smile. She nodded back, reassuring him. Ordering the bots to go back and take what was left she walked out heading towards controls. Sooner or later she would have asked anyway. Brick and Mnemo were debating over the comm about a better way to pile up the partitioned hulk, keeping it together with talks. Going in Main Deck door she removed her circlet and carefully knocked on a metal surface, drawing Ashley's attention. When the commander turned to look, she pointed on her removed head gear and approached. Ashley removed hers as well. She leaned in the chair and allowed the fatigue to trickle in.
"Boss," Zyana began calmly. "I want to be ready for that thing. What was it? I want to know."
Leaning on one side, hand supporting her head Ashley took a moment before answering.
"I don't know, champ. I thought it didn't look threatening. It was looking around as if not making any sense out of it. I could see it's head shuffling around. Too dark to tell you clearly what it looked like, but then it looked at me. Those two eyes I will remember. That's the time I lost all grip, champ.Not afraid as when I was running for shelter in the trenches; nor angry as when my mates were dying. Not like when we're pushing through the meat shield. Those things help us to be better soldiers, champ. It was something else. Panic... And I held to the only thing that made sense to me then." Tired, she turned her gaze back to controls.
After a short pause, Zyana said, "I've got your back, Chief." She turned and left controls to stock on gels and hypos from first aid. Soon after all of them were clad in carapaces and the small cargo loaded with the emergency gear.
Inspection done; systems on-line; power-check; landing thrusters-ready; fuel tank- full.
They detached themselves from the dark body of the Exo and an unspoken wave of relief followed. The ship was going through the night side of the planet and the landing site was pre-mapped. It was almost at the centre of the dark globe. A push from the thrusters and the small vessel moved towards it's destination. Soon they would enter the atmosphere.
Ashley was conscripted from a very young age by the royal marines, back on Earth. Instead of finishing high school she carried a machine gun for graduation day. The world was a grim place thirty years ago. Quiet uprisings - stopped at their very inception with corporate diplomacy; mass and obvious surveillance; inequalities everybody knew of but no body was talking about slowly brought desperation in the hearts of men. And as the philosopher had said "If humanity does not invent Utopia it will self consume itself." The system causing the waves of unrest was struggling under it's own weight, but in the name of order, "sacrifices" were made for the good of society. Some of the intertwined economies of the world were facing default just as various corporations were swallowing states and one day somebody was waking up with the same laws in the book, but paying their tribute to a corporation rather than a country. Constitutions were changed into handbooks of clauses; public norms became way of assimilating oneself in the work force; etiquette was forgotten; global economy changed from prosperity to rent seeking. Without an original malicious intent humanity was plunged into a dark bubble of gripping stasis. Desperation gave rise to waves of unrest. A gradual dissolution of a system, where everybody who participated were truly equal only because they shared the poverty. In the midst of the rising chaos were those who chose to preserve peace, rather than cling to an old world order; those who valued knowledge or had seen divinity in creation. Those with will, power and drive. Those who ascribed worth to life and viewed progress in light of advancement and discovery. Technology gave them the means to oppose the dissolution and preserve a body that could recreate society. Sadly the savagery of the trenches was a key to the preservation. The rest of the crew weren't even born then.
Brick was reciting from a small prayer book in a low voice as the sudden rocking of the ship indicated entrance in the atmosphere. Intrigued, Mnemo was peeking behind his shoulder, childishly taken in by every new thing presented and visibly ominous of the shacking that has now grown into massive reverberation. A happy smiley was projected on the screen. The serene open space background outside changed into deep purple haze, followed by a night sky. The clear bright dots of the distant stars began flickering as they entered mesosphere. Zyana was gripping the two sides of her arm chair and had herself strapped tightly. The sensation did not please her much. The swarm was squirming comically as they shuffled around the floor of the vessel as the vibrations were tossing them around. Ashley was apparently not bothered at all by the turbulence. A sound of alarm came from the console and a "Critical height reached" sign flashed on a holopad. Brick brought his seat close to controls.
"Override!" A brief blue flash engulfed the deck.
"Yes, Captain!" a metallic voice was heard.
"Frontal thrusters, please!" His fingers were quickly going through buttons on the console and a holo keyboard.
Mnemo's readings indicated high pulse in Zyana and steady in Brick and Ashley. Flat smile face.
A deep thrum came, followed by a huge tremor in the ship; the rocking receded. Brick did not stop moving his hands between the keyboard and a soaring schematics of the drop ship.
"Balancing engines, please. Maximum power on frontal thrust!". The unsurprising 'Yes, Captain' came again; they could see the quickly approaching ground outside.
"Distribute propulsion!" All the rocking from before was gone. They were now descending cosily into the lower parts of the atmosphere.
A distinct "thump" was heard, followed by the receding sounds of the engines going cold.
"Ladies and gents. Welcome home!" Brick smiled as he looked at the rest of the team.
"Brick, I will hand it to you. Don't become an ass hole, though!" Ashley curved her mouth in a smile.
"Deeply interested. I have some questions, concerning the process," Mnemo said as he unfastened. Happy smiley.
"Eight years in space academy, and they still don't think you're ready. If you can deal with the constant assessments, please I will show you everything." Brick did a lightly mocking bow.
It was a landing done without the full support of navigation processor. That and Mnemo actually had a lot of respect for any academic knowledge. Even though he could probably outpace any human in terms of learning he was taken in by an immense curiosity about the world.
Ashley was already at the door, "Aright ladies. We've got work to do!"
The swarm gathered again at Zyana's feet and she followed close by.
"Yes, Chief!" the three of them replied.