THE CELARAN PROBE

Chapter 1


Cilreth relaxed in her sleep web, eyes closed, reading off-retina. She pored over a report by Siobhan and Caden about Celaran cybernetics. The two had dived into the project with a vengeance, though the subject material proved difficult. The Celarans had advanced to the point where their circuits were built at a subatomic level, making them almost impossible to map and understand. Their software, assuming they had any at all, proved elusive.

She sighed for the fourth time.

I need to get the team another person. Someone young with a brilliant and plastic brain.

Siobhan and Caden were smart, but they were not ideally suited for the work. Cilreth wanted a new software specialist. Possibly to replace herself.

Maybe a five year old, she joked internally.

Cilreth finally felt comfortable working with Vovokan systems. It had been a trying time to arrive at this point of understanding. She just did not have the patience and energy to start all over again with the Celaran tech. If she stayed on the PIT team, it should be as their Vovokan tech expert and little else.

I’ll put the new person straight on to the Celaran stuff. Though if they’re supposed to replace me, then I should teach them about Vovokan software. Cthulhu’s writhing tentacles, they need to be a proven hacker of Terran systems, too. Or do they? Should I start with someone who hasn’t been exposed to—nope. They have to be a hacker at heart already.

The New Iridar was still en route to the second planet known by Vovokans to hold Celaran ruins. Cilreth did not know what they might find, but she supposed a return to Earth would be on the schedule after that. How hard would it be to find a new recruit? Did it have to happen with Shiny’s approval?

Cilreth contacted Telisa and asked for a private channel.

“Cilreth. What’s up?” Telisa responded.

“Do you think Shiny would oppose a new team member? Would I be able to find someone with only your approval?”

“I think we can take on whoever we want,” Telisa said. “If not... I can add that to the negotiations.”

Telisa still plans to deal for Magnus’s release. I hope that’s realistic.

Cilreth became aware Telisa had said something. She checked her link’s conversation log. Telisa had asked what Cilreth was working on.

“Oh. I’m organizing what I know about Vovokan software,” Cilreth said. “I’m going to quit the frontier once I have a brilliant young replacement ready for you.”

“If that’s what you want. But I really like having you on the job.” Telisa sounded dismissive.

“I know, I keep saying this but I haven’t left yet. I’m going to bow out eventually. Next time we get to Earth I want to find my replacement if you trust me.”

“I do. That is, if you’re not a Trilisk.”

“That reminds me, I need to tell you how to run the check for Trilisk signs. Everyone should know.”

“More than that, actually,” Telisa said. “If the ship detects a Trilisk, then everyone needs to be alerted to my location. In fact, the ship should be rigged to poison me automatically if I get taken. We could use Maxsym’s gas.”

Cilreth did not answer right away. Telisa was a Trilisk host body, thus a danger if Trilisks came within range. Telisa just wanted to protect the team. Cilreth suppressed the urge to say she could not do it.

Telisa’s being straight with me. She won’t water it down.

“I agree. But only because I know you’re a copy. We have the original Telisa on ice with Magnus, right?”

“That’s what I’ve been led to believe,” Telisa said sadly. Cilreth’s mouth compressed.

Should not have mentioned Magnus...

“Okay.”

“We’ll need an expert for each race, I think,” Telisa said. “I mean, I could handle the old job of pointing out valuable alien artifacts, but when we go tackling communications and software, we need one person to specialize in Vovokan tech, another for Celaran, and so on.”

“I definitely agree.”

“Then please stay on as our Vovokan expert. The new person can tackle the Celaran projects.”

“I’ll think about it,” Cilreth said.

“We’ll also have to organize what we’ve learned for our own knowledge base as well as for potential customers. We could consider selling some of it to the right people. The know-how is as valuable as the artifacts themselves.”

“Maybe, yeah,” Cilreth said. “You can be our Trilisk expert, seeing as how you practically are one.”

“Oh, thanks for that,” Telisa said, but her voice was lighter now.

“We could give away the knowledge of how to make Maxsym’s Trilisk poison for free.”

“We could... except we might not want any Trilisks left around to know we have it. I assume they could counter it easily, given the warning.”

“Ah, good point,” Cilreth conceded.

“Jason is the most junior team member, so he gets the Blackvines.”

Cilreth laughed. “No one else would want the assignment. I haven’t turned the lights off the highest setting in my quarters for weeks,” she said.

Vincent had proved troublesome. He often crept in to any unattended room and started taking things apart. The team had learned the Blackvine avoided groups of people and brightly lit rooms with no place to hide. Everyone’s quarters had turned into overlit Spartan chambers. They kept the alien mostly crowded into one of the cargo rooms with the lights out. The room had been filled with spare junk and empty containers to give it places to hide and plenty of toys to play with.

Efforts to communicate had not made much progress, beyond learning that Vincent cared only about Vincent and wanted to control everything else for its own gain. When any person or interface refused to obey one of its commands, it declared that something was broken and needed repair.

“Can Siobhan and Caden handle the Celaran side for now?” Telisa asked.

“Not really. It’s not their fault. This isn’t their specialty, and it’s damn frustrating besides.”

“It’s good for them to try. They’ll learn a respect for the job if nothing else,” Telisa said.

“Anyway, I’ll get back to it. When we head back to Earth, I’ll find who we need.”

“Sounds good.”


Chapter 2


Telisa received an automated notification when the ship slowed its gravity spinner to enter normal space. She was already off-retina in her quarters, so she opened new panes in her PV and prepared to learn about the new system.

“The spinner has dropped us below the threshold. Rorka Cartur System is before us,” Cilreth announced enthusiastically on a team channel. Data started to pour in from the tiny Vovokan ship’s sensors. Telisa’s PV filled with information.

The first thing Telisa noticed was that there was only one star and one real planet-sized body. Beyond the lone planet, an emaciated asteroid belt added a thin ring around the star. The system had no gas giant or primordial black hole to explain the presence of the belt.

I won’t assume anything, she told herself. There could be a space station here somewhere...

Telisa looked for other objects of interest in the system. The initial reports came back showing a few small natural bodies in eccentric orbits. Cilreth started to devote more resources to scanning the planet, a decision which Telisa approved of.

A hit came in from the planet. One artificial site found... no others followed. Telisa felt a stab of disappointment.

Probably no active Celaran colony here.

“I see only one site. It’s big,” Cilreth offered the team on the shared channel. Her voice sounded more positive than Telisa felt.

Telisa zoomed in on what they had spotted. She saw a large flat area with some building-sized shapes in the middle.

“Remind you of anything?” Telisa asked.

“Well, yes. It’s exactly the same shape and surface area as the large facility on the last Celaran planet. The industrial yard with the ship,” said Cilreth.

“So another colony site, but this one didn’t make it as far,” Siobhan said. “I see the spikes and the vines, just like at Idrick Piper.”

Telisa focused on the feed of the ruins site. The flattop had been put down across a wide field. The fence was up, exactly as at the other facility. Some building shells stood, alongside a few other rectangular holes in the field.

Standard operating procedure for the Celaran colony builders, I guess.

“Let’s go check it out in person,” Telisa said. “Start our approach.”

“What do you think? Just land right on the field?” asked Cilreth.

“Do we really have reason to believe the automated systems will accept us again?” Siobhan asked.

“It seems likely,” Telisa said.

“They had longer to get used to us at the other place,” Imanol said on the channel. “Just dropping down from nowhere might trigger a hostile response.”

Telisa considered it. She felt she knew the Celarans a bit already. They did not seem bloodthirsty. Yet, a blunder with the whole PIT team aboard could end everything.

“Let’s err on the side of caution. Land just outside the fence,” Telisa ordered.

“Got it,” Cilreth accepted cheerily. The New Iridar descended into the atmosphere of the planet. According to several analyses, the air was very close to what they had found at the last colony site; given the vast array of Celaran vines growing across the planet, that did not surprise Telisa.

It’s been Celaraformed; I bet it even smells the same down there.

Telisa watched the external feeds as they came over the site from above. Several large rectangular holes in the planet’s surface had been created in the field. The buildings were not done.

Not even as far along as the other planet.

Cilreth did not see any unusual places to land, so she set the ship down amid the vines. It settled to the ground within 50 meters of the fence.

“Let’s go,” Telisa said, her voice calm. She knew the others would pick up on her lack of enthusiasm, but she did not care. She was already wondering if she should offer Shiny the Celaran spacecraft from the other facility for Magnus after all.

The team, missing only Cilreth, emerged from the ship and walked out into the vine forest. Imanol and Jason naturally paired up, as did Siobhan and Caden. Everyone had their weapons out, just like another of their countless VR training sessions. It felt good to do something incarnate, though. Telisa knew they would feel sharper, too. Ready for anything.

“Something went wrong here, or this facility would be completed,” Telisa said, looking out over the vines at the perimeter. “I want to know what.”

The others took her point. Had some enemy come in and put a stop to the base?

The light was brighter than before. It helped to remind Telisa that they were at a new colony. The spikes and vines made her feel like she had returned to the original site. The gravity felt heavy. Telisa accessed a sensor in her Veer suit with her link. It told her the environment was closer to Earth’s gravitational acceleration.

Telisa watched the flattop and the familiar vine forest while Imanol and Jason cut a path through the fence. They walked inside on alert.

“I don’t think there will be any Celaran guardians this time,” Jason said.

Telisa nodded. They walked out onto the field toward the nearest building foundation. Telisa immediately felt vulnerable out in the open. She dispatched attendants to follow the fence around the perimeter, looking for danger.

Jason and Imanol led the way to the foundation opening ahead. They took a look calmly and waved everyone over. Telisa looked for herself when she arrived at the edge. It was deeper than Telisa expected; maybe two or three Terran stories down. One side was ramped, the other three were sheer drops. It looked clean at the bottom. Telisa wondered how it was that no rain water had accumulated there.

Their attendant spheres darted around the site like excited birds. They reported more foundations in progress. There were some construction machines, quiet hulks that had been powered down. Some had long legs, others had wide treads like Terran digging machines.

“It looks like work was halted a long time ago,” Caden said. “I don’t see any signs of attack.”

“Maybe a factory was going down here,” Siobhan said. She pointed farther into the field. “That one, I don’t know. It’s even deeper.”

“Another spacecraft hangar under the surface,” Telisa guessed. “It’s the same dimensions as the hangar we left behind at the other ruins site.”

Imanol shook his head. He voiced the same disappointment everyone else felt. “So we came here for nothing. No Celarans.”

Imanol. Always with the light of the Five in his voice.

“One problem at a time. We’ll finish down here and figure out something,” Telisa said. She turned to Siobhan.

“Did all these materials come from the planet? I don’t see any mines around here.”

Siobhan pointed to the nearest open building on the field.

“That part there came from space, I think. A factory seed payload, Terrans would call it. I think this facility bootstraps itself with the payload delivered by spacecraft.”

“So the spacecraft went onwards to plant a seed on the next planet.”

“Maybe,” Siobhan said. “Why speculate about that?”

“This facility was never finished, obviously. If they made a ship that pre-built these places, they would have it restock a new factory payload from here.”

“And if that was the plan, then it never happened,” Caden said. “So there’s still a ship here somewhere.”

“That could be,” Telisa said.

“I can think of a lot of other logical ways for it to work,” Imanol said. “First, you have probes that explore and report back on suitable planets. Then, these factory ships—”

“No, then the Celaraforming ships,” Jason interrupted. “Then the factory ships. Then the colony ships.”

“True,” Telisa said. “Couldn’t hurt to check before we leave, though. Cilreth?”

“Yes?”

“Take a careful look. Are we the only ones in orbit of this planet?”

“What?”

“Look carefully,” Telisa said. “The Celarans probably know a few ways to hide that Terrans don’t.”

“I’m on it.”

Telisa sighed. Her tactical highlighted an event. An attendant had gone missing. She frowned.

An alert signal came to her link.

“Everybody down!” yelled Imanol. Telisa heard a loud crackling she could not identify. It mixed with the high pitched sound of a laser rifle discharge.

Telisa fell prone with her rifle out. To her left, a stack of gray building materials set out in heavy blocks offered some cover, so she shuffled toward it. A quick glance of the field to her right did not reveal any enemies, but the partially constructed buildings broke up her line of sight. She accessed a feed of the danger through an attendant. She saw a bright light emerging from one of the most distant building basement holes across the facility. Much closer, a column of black smoke rose into the sky. At the same time, a light wind blew across her and a thrumming sound came to her ears.

By the Five this is familiar!

Telisa recognized the enemy. This had all happened before.

A Destroyer! Like Magnus and I saw on Vovok.

She checked Imanol’s position. He was near the source of the black smoke, but the tactical displayed him as live. An attendant feed showed him covering in another of the foundation holes.

Telisa told her pack to release a grenade. She locked the device onto the target signature which was being refined second by second as they observed the enemy. More attendants dropped off the tactical.

“Cover!” Telisa ordered. “Release grenades on my command. Handing over target sigs.” Telisa sent her target signatures she had developed for the Destroyers on Vovok.

We don’t have Shiny’s battle sphere here to protect us.

“It’s flying my way,” Imanol said. “I don’t have cover from above.” His voice was calm for a man who would be dead within the minute if nothing changed.

It was too bright for Telisa to get much detail, but the light could also guide the grenade to its target. “Grenades in three, two, one, release!”

Her own grenade spun off, accelerating hard toward the enemy.

Bright lights flashed across the field. Telisa saw more attendants had been destroyed. The bright lights and strange wind made it hard to stay calm. It was like fighting an angry storm.

We need to duplicate this in training, Telisa thought.

So far, no one on the team had been killed, but that could happen any second. Telisa put her smart pistol over the stack of heavy blocks. She told it to fire on full auto with one hand while she grabbed her breaker claw with the other. The pistol jumped around but it didn’t matter: the smart rounds would correct their flight path to zero in on the machine ahead.

Booom!

An explosion boomed across the field. Then more.

Booom! Booom!

Telisa gathered herself. She knew she was faster than anyone else, and the breaker claw was more advanced than their Terran rifles. She grabbed a piece of debris from the edge of the foundation in her left hand and clutched the breaker claw in her right. She hurled the debris one direction and darted out on the other side of the huge gray bricks that shielded her. She saw the light from the enemy machine between two buildings.

Telisa sprinted into the wind to get a clear line of sight on the Destroyer. Despite her speed, the angles of the large buildings relative to her changed with agonizing slowness. Finally she saw the source of the light shine brightly through the obstacles.

She interfaced with the breaker claw. Telisa forced calm in herself and gave it the target signature. The adapter took only milliseconds to translate that into whatever instructions the alien weapon accepted.

KA-BOOM!

An immense explosion rocked the field. Telisa dove for the ground and buried her face under her arm. The light wind sharply increased into a shock wave. Tiny bits of rock or ceramic bit into her exposed skin where her arm had not completed protected it. Suddenly silence fell across the paved field.

She looked up. The light was extinguished.

“Cthulhu crying, is anyone down?” asked Cilreth from the ship. Telisa checked her team’s vitals.

“Imanol, are you there?” asked Siobhan. Telisa saw he was still green on her tactical. She started to check everyone.

“I’m alive,” Imanol said. “Half buried under pavement.”

We all made it. Minus a handful of attendant spheres.

“Everyone, hold your positions. There could be more,” Telisa said.

“What was that thing?” Caden demanded.

“It was a Destroyer robot,” Telisa said. “A war machine from the race that attacked Shiny’s homeworld.”

“Then what are we doing fighting it? Sounds like our ally to me,” Imanol said.

“In case you didn’t notice, it attacked us,” Jason said.

“I think it was shooting at the attendants,” Siobhan said. “None of us were hit. Was it just luck, or were we not targeted at all?”

Might have been a mistake to start shooting. Imanol had to make a quick call, though.

“It knows of the attendants as its enemies. And we, by extension, might have been categorized as enemies. But you’re right. It may not have shot at us until we returned fire. I still wouldn’t take the risk, though. Imanol, you made the right call. Assuming that was your laser rifle I heard.”

“It was my laser pistol. I shot back when it slagged an attendant close to me. At first I thought it was shooting at me anyway.”

Telisa saw several columns of the black smoke rising across the field from the video feeds. The surviving attendants finished checking each open basement for more Destroyers. There were no more on the base, unless they could stealth or burrow.

“It’s clear for the moment. Everyone, with me.” Telisa stood. “Unless you want to hang out and wait for more of them.” The others rose after her. They double-timed it back toward the New Iridar.

“What’s with the name? Destroyer?” asked Siobhan.

“Not inspired, I admit,” said Telisa. “That’s what they were to Magnus and I at the time: the destroyers of Vovok.”

“Any better ideas who they are now?”

“No. I don’t know where that race comes from, so for now, I guess they’re just the Destroyers.”

“What does Shiny call them?” Jason asked.

Imanol laughed. He stomped his feet rapidly on the hard surface of the field, mocking the Vovokan’s speech.

“Right,” Jason said abashedly.

“Well, we know now they’re the enemies of the Celarans, too,” Caden said. They arrived at the fence. The net was still broken where they had cut it, so they retreated back out into the vines.

“Not necessarily. I saw no signs of battle,” Telisa said.

“Yet it was here waiting. And something caused the colony to fail,” Caden said.

“It proves nothing,” Jason said. “It could have been their friend. Possibly the only survivor of some other attack or catastrophe. Maybe it even thought we were the ones who killed this place.”

Well, he’s coming out of his shell nicely.

“I agree. Nothing is clear,” Telisa said.

And I need to think about this. Are the Destroyers really our friends?

“Cilreth, we’re almost there. Then we’re taking off. Everyone watch for more of them.”

Got it. The ship's ready.