Generation (Shadows of the Void Book 1)

By JJ Green

Sci-Fi

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375
5 mins

 

Jas Harrington snapped her visor in place and took a deep breath of the purified, cooled air that flowed into her combat suit. For the last fifteen minutes she’d been ignoring the prickles that ran down her spine as she prepared her team for the routine LIV—Locate, Investigate, Vacate. But she couldn’t ignore the feeling any longer. 

“AX7,” she said as she entered the shuttle airlock with the fifteen burly, androgynous defense units under her command. The door to the passenger cabin slid closed behind them, and a hiss permeated the enclosed space as the planet’s atmosphere entered through newly opened valves, equalizing the air pressure differential.
“C.S.O. Harrington,” the unit replied.
“Station yourself at the rear.”
“Affirmative, C.S.O. Harrington.”
AX7 had been injured in a skirmish with a hostile species a few planets back, and though the unit had self-repaired as programmed, it wasn’t factory-perfect like the others were, and those prickles were telling her to expect an attack.
The part-organic, part-robotic Polestar Corp androids shuffled aside in the narrow airlock to allow AX7 through. Jas’ excessively long childhood on Mars had resulted in a height of just over two meters, but at two meters thirty the defense units dwarfed her. As usual at close quarters, she was acutely conscious of the difference. The units resembled linebackers padded up, except they had no padding. Thin armored material that was highly resistant to penetration and extreme temperatures coated their large forms.
If the defense units short-circuited and turned on her, well...Jas pushed memories of incidents involving prototypes to the back of her mind. These were the latest, state-of-the-art models, though she wasn’t naive enough to imagine Polestar supplied them to protect the crew. No, in the event of an emergency, she was sure the units’ first move would be to save precious resource samples.
AX7’s face expressed no emotion as it moved to the back of the group, though it had the intellectual capacity to understand why Jas had put it there. Despite her extensive experience working with the units, she hadn’t figured out if they genuinely had no feelings at all, or if they weren’t able to express them.
“What’s the weather like out there, Lingiari?” she asked the shuttle pilot through her radio.
“A little precipitation. Temperature just below zero.”
A spark of nostalgia flickered through Jas’ sense of foreboding. “Snow? It’s snowing?” She hadn’t seen snow since attending training college in Antarctica, the last place on Earth it had snowed in twenty years.
“Sure looks like it,” the pilot replied.
Jas’ brief moment of pleasure was swamped by the realization that snow meant reduced visibility. The prickles down her spine grew so strong she itched to rub her back, impossible though that was in her suit. “Still no bio readings?”
“Nothing bigger than a rat’s dick.”
Jas rolled her eyes and thumbed a switch on her weapon, changing the setting to flamethrower. Not many life forms could withstand fire. She didn’t instruct her defense units on their weaponry. They would compute the optimum response according to the situation, probably better and faster than her. The smartest command strategy was to leave them the hell alone to do their job, unless she knew something they didn’t, but as in most LIV assignments, she was the blind leading the blind.
A light flashed above the airlock’s outer door. Ten flashes and it would open. The shuttle computer was simultaneously relaying the countdown to the units electronically, but their eyes were also on the light. Defense unit behavior was disarmingly human at times.
The door opened, and the airlock flooded with light and swirling flakes of snow. Jas’ visor instantly dimmed, shadowing her view of the terrain outside. A flat, plain landscape stretched to the horizon, lightly powdered with snow and peppered with tough scrub. Except for the low, dull vegetation, the area seemed empty of life. A dark gray structure made up of overlapping hexagonal boxes two or three meters tall dominated the view, against a pale gray, cloudy sky. It wasn’t the most inviting planet Jas had visited.
She gave the order to disembark. Moving as one, the defense units set off down the ramp. She followed and took her place at their side. The one point two Earth gravity made moving a little more effort than usual, but it was manageable. Her boots broke through the thin layer of snow, and the familiar thrill of being the first human being to set foot on a new planet surged through her, despite her trepidation.
“No Class P life forms within one K,” came Lingiari’s voice through her radio. His close-range scanners were telling him the same as the starship’s less sensitive long-distance surveillance equipment had indicated before they set out—nothing to worry about, supposedly. Jas’s grip tightened on her weapon as she accompanied the units toward the matte gray structure.
“Your scanners are penetrating that rock construction, right?” she asked Lingiari.
“Yeah, as far as I can tell, but they aren’t picking up anything. Seems to be empty. But it isn’t rock. It’s a crystal-metal amalgam. And another material the scanners can’t identify.”
“Artificial?”
“I think you might be confusing me with a scientist. I’m forwarding the results to the ship.”
“Sorry. Thanks for the info,” Jas replied. Of course the pilot didn’t have the knowledge or authority to interpret the data. What was she thinking? She deliberately tensed and then relaxed her muscles. An officer aboard the Galathea would update her on anything they thought important. At that moment, no one was saying anything.
She’d reached a hole in the wall of the structure. The defense units were waiting in formation. The hole was hexagonal, mirroring the shape of the structure’s blocks. Inside, all was dark.
“C.S.O. Harrington, permission to enter and search,” AX5 said.
“Permission granted. AX12, you too.”
The two units stepped over a low wall at the base of the hole and dipped their heads as they went inside. Motionless, the other units waited, snowflakes settling on their wide shoulders. A few minutes later, AX5’s calm voice came through Jas’ radio. “All clear.”
She released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Follow on,” she instructed the rest.
As Jas went in, her dimmed visor cleared, and a light beamed out from her helmet, slicing through the darkness. She was in an empty room just large enough to hold her and thirteen units comfortably. AX5 and 12 were investigating a neighboring chamber. The floor was the same crystal-metal amalgam as the walls and ceiling, and it sloped gradually downward toward several hexagonal holes at the far end. A few steps inside, and Jas could raise her head.
AX12 and 5 appeared at a hole—or doorway?—on the far side. The place was still and silent. The scanner reports seemed accurate. It looked empty, totally devoid of life or artifacts. She divided the units into groups and sent them to investigate deeper inside, accompanying one of the groups herself.
The next room looked the same as the first. No sign of life nor signs that anything had ever lived there. The only break in the monotonous walls was more holes, leading to identical rooms and heading downward, underground and deeper into the structure. From Jas’ position as she peered through a hole, the rooms seemed endless.
An hour passed, then two. Jas and the units penetrated deep into the labyrinthine construction. She had to activate her suit’s pathfinder function to avoid getting lost. By the time she surfaced, she’d found nothing different from the empty room at the entrance.
Jas had conducted LIVs on many planets. According to strict regulations, they had to vacate immediately at the first sign of intelligence. If there was no intelligent life, the planet’s resources were up for grabs to the first corporation that claimed them.
In Jas’ experience the evidence of high-level, sentient species was usually clear. Whatever the form of intelligence, evolution always seemed to favor certain expressions of it: the use of tools, modifying the natural environment, storage of resources, training of offspring, and the systemization of food gathering or production and distribution. On K.67092d, the evidence was not clear. The regular, straight lines of the structure indicated artificial construction, but there seemed to be no other evidence of intelligence. If sentient life forms had built the place, where were they? Why had they left, leaving nothing behind?
Leaving the structure, Jas scanned the surroundings again. It had stopped snowing. Nothing moved except the spiny, spindly, leafless branches of the low shrubs, bending slightly, creaking in the steady wind.
“Preliminary report, Harrington?” Akabe Loba’s voice came over her radio.
Jas stiffened. As always, the master of the Galathea was pushing her, his eye focused solely on his schedule and bonuses. “Initial LIV not complete, sir.”
“But no sign of intelligence?”
“It’s hard to tell, sir. The structure’s—”
“I can see it through your relay, Harrington. Looks geological to me. And there are no artifacts.”
Jas’ lips drew into a thin line. She knew what was coming. “Sir, it’s a little early to conclude—”
“I’m not asking you to conclude anything, C.S.O. Harrington. Is the area secure?”
When she didn’t answer immediately, Loba repeated his question, louder.
“No hostile life forms encountered, yet,” Jas replied through her teeth. Damn the misborn. But what could she say? Prickles down her spine didn’t count as a reason to delay resource assessment.




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