Chapter 2, Through the Veil
We left our heroes ready to leave on the Baron Munch, to investigate the lost colony of Destine. (As a minor correction, it was Robbie, not Gannar, who wanted more remote-control gun platforms. But building them will take time, so we leave first.)
The trip takes two days. On the way, Gannar, Tom, and Robbie play with the teleform projector looted from the Hexenjager robot in the previous adventure but one. After a while, they are able to project static images of the Hexenjager's various human disguises. Braeta joins in, trying to help them run the action routines, but no luck. Meanwhile, Robbie updates Tom on the adventures in the Terraform Reach.
At one point in our Hexen-hacking, Robbie -- who is interfacing directly with the hardware -- offers to link up telepathically with Braeta. She agrees cautiously, but warns Robbie that telepathy with her can be ... wearing.
It is. She's VERY old, her memory is vast, and there's an elemental power to her psyche that overwhelms a not-very-psychic robot like Robbie. After hanging various processors for a while, he gives up.
Tom offers to act as router (and perhaps circuit-breaker) between the demigoddess and the robot. That works, sort of. He keeps the linkup shallow. It's still like she's shouting at him through an amplifier. It's interesting -- and rather distracting -- that this daughter of Zeus can sense electrical current directly. She and Tom and Robbie now try variously to psychically scan the Hexenjager hardware. No luck. Tom tries muffling the telepathic link with a partial Shield. This makes his mental life more comfortable, but they don't have any better luck with the hardware. Darn.
Tom drops the link and returns from a search for headache pills to find Braeta and Robbie trying the old-fashioned approach of connecting leads to the hardware. Braeta is using a laptop computer with what appear to be some very interesting features. So interesting, in fact, that she is reluctant to let Tom look over her shoulder at the screen.
He tactfully stops trying, only asking, "Custom job?" "Yes." "Did you get interested in computers through your ability to sense electricity?" "No, I just felt I needed to be good with them in order to stay one step ahead of everyone else, when data-trails became common and easy to follow." In fact, she has had several novel computers. The previous one was very good but had enough ego to style itself an "Intellect Magister." (The Nones computer is only an Intellect Major, albeit souped up, and most computers you talk to are just Intellects Minor. "Magister" is automatically a proclamation of sapience.) Tom considers asking what happened to it, but decides this might be too personal.
We discuss trade secrets. Braeta remarks on how a place called "Eldacur Technologies" produced a lot of surprisingly good stuff. "Yes, we did," Tom answers. "Oh. Well, that explains that."
We plan. We consider time-traveling as we move toward Destine, but decide to wait. Braeta briefs us on the place -- more ocean than Earth, only one smallish continent, the settlements limited to one big city (Destine City) and a wide halo of little cities. She found signs of fighting in the center of the main city, along with the helmet and dagger with the dragon sigil. She wasn't sure what tech level Destine was at; she didn't want to linger, after all. Most of the inhabitants would have been humans, followers of the nephilim elite. What the humans thought the nephilim were, she didn't know. She only knew a few of the original nephilite settlers, and they were not long-lived like her.
On the second day, Edvard, the ship computer, announces we are passing through an anomaly, which interferes with navigation and makes it harder to determine pseudo-velocity. We check the Map of Here but find a gray blank. A look out the windows appears normal -- just black and the violet sparks of black hole cores, shining with tachyonic radiation. Braeta thinks we just passed through the Veil Nebula. Her own records and Edvard's calculations support this idea.
Shortly, we drop out of hyperstate, but not before Robbie and Edvard have a brisk argument about the advisability of loud and annoying ten-minute and ten-second warnings.
We arrive in the Destine system. That one continent is slightly larger than Australia and, like it, largely desert. The cities are near the coast. Telescopic survey shows the signs of devastation -- long smudges of wind-borne smoke now staining the ground, pointing back to the center of Destine City. Braeta compares these views with her own orbital scans from last time. Little change.
No, wait. The cities look more eroded and weathered. But there are no weeds in the streets or forests encroaching. So it doesn't look as if we were necessarily thrown off temporal course by that anomaly in the Veil Nebula. Rather, it looks as if the cities are aging with unnatural speed.
Braeta searches her records and finds a library in Destine City, where we can look through recent periodicals and such, to see if the Destinos had any warning of what overtook them. Edvard brings us down at the spaceport, warning of a bumpy landing -- the tarmac is crumbling.
Once we are down, Edvard announces that there is a dangerous level of radiation out there. It's a mixture of many types -- gamma, neutron, etc. And he can't localize a source. Braeta checks her records again and announces that this is new since her visit, though there was some radiation even then.
At her suggestion, we whisk away to one of the lesser cities. The radiation level there is only a 100th of what it was at the center of the Destine City devastation, but still much higher than natural -- damaging after 18 to 24 hours, lethal after 5 to 10 days, says our autodoc. It appears that all the settlements are irradiated, and the larger, the worse. We speculate on the relation to the unnatural aging.
The town has a library, clearly marked on the rooftop parking lot. The Munch hovers over it and Markel launches a clairvoyance viewpoint into it. The books look old. The papers lying around are starting to crumble with pure, unnatural age. But Braeta claims it is only four weeks since she was here last, to the best of her reckoning.
Robbie suggests we back up FIVE weeks and look for some records that haven't disintegrated yet. We agree. Edvard has been warned about our intention of pulling such stunts, so he makes no demur and a few hours later it's five weeks earlier.
It's still after the disaster, of course. There are still (or already) no craft about in the spaceport. Edvard prepares for another rough landing, but this time the tarmac is still smooth. Which clearly demonstrates that the aging is unnaturally accelerated. The radiation level is much lower here -- only about what it was back at that town.
We find the Destine City library and once more Markel uses clairvoyance. The place looks okay, though the potted trees are starting to wilt. Since Markel doesn't read Earthron, he lets Tom steer his viewpoint. The magazines and newspapers left out on tables make no mention of dragons or disaster.
Most of the books on the shelf are databooks. Tom uses cyberclair to riffle through parts of the history section. The recent bits were pretty peaceful. The early bits were much more exciting. One of the three colony ships cracked up, but most of the passengers got out. This left the colony with only 2/3 of the resources they'd planned on, so there were hard times early on. They had to work to make Destine truly habitable, but what exactly they did is not clear.
Braeta suggests that the puzzling bits refer to the way the nephilim can alter nature, once they have awakened their godlike heritage. Supernatural terraforming. For instance, they might manipulate local lifeforms to be more edible or at least less poisonous. The others are somewhat startled by the sheer scope of nephilite powers. Braeta remarks that people have wondered why mortal women would be attracted to Zeus in the form of a swan or a bull; what they don't realize is that, when you were the center of his attention, it was a lot like being at the center of the world, and that's pretty heady stuff. A fully developed nephil can steer an entire aspect of an entire world, or at least a good chunk of a world. They were reckoned gods, after all.
Tom asks if Destine might be reverting to it's pre-colonized state. Braeta says no, it wasn't ever this radioactive. And reversion wouldn't happen just because the nephilim left -- or were taken. Once they set a place on a new course, inertia would keep it on that course.
We now wonder, not for the first time, why a deliberately isolated colony has a spaceport. First of all, it was probably also the airport. Edvard scans the hangars and also finds remains of four spaceships, heavily damaged. A clairview shows signs of weapons fire.
Gannar and Brunalf volunteer to go out into the radiation, the android protected by his factory-installed psionic anti-radiation score, the neo-cat in his little spaceship. The control tower, they find, was clearly the scene of battle. Gannar recognizes the smell of stale ozone from old blaster fire and the place is totally trashed, as with fire. The security posts were really ravaged. And there are human remains -- charred bits, any intact bodies having been removed. That stale ozone smell, by the way, doesn't last long, so this point in time is not long after the fight, a couple of weeks at most.
There are no records in the machinery -- a thorough and deliberate covering of tracks.
Back on the Munch, Robbie asks Braeta if Zeus or a similar nephil could cause the radiation. Maybe. How about one of the Powers, the Eretsarin? Well, of course; they were demiurges, after all. But why would demiurges use blasters?
Tom wonders if the dragons destroyed records because they knew we were coming. Did they have premonition? Braeta doesn't know, but premonition is common enough among nephilim so that she wonders that the Destinos were so totally surprised.
We check the Map of Here. Very instructive. The center of the devastation shows as a big blotch on the map, labeled "Major unknown anomaly." (Remember how old maps used to say "Here there be dragons"?) And there are several hundred magenta pins labeled "unknown dimensional incursion" all with a time-stamp from about 19 weeks ago. There are also half a dozen green pins, likewise unknown, and two pale blue spots labeled "elf-hill-like," at the northwest edge.
We reconstruct dimensional activity as follows: First the two blue spots, suggesting scouts. Then the magenta spots in a storm lasting two days. The green spots show up in the midst of that. Then the huge red blotch at the end. Actually, looking at its time-stamp, the time for the red blotch is labeled "onset." So it maybe something that is still going on. (Note to Daewen and Alag -- Next rev of spellware for the map should have better time data.)
Back outside, Gannar checks out the damaged ships in the hangars. There are some aircraft. Only the four spaceships could pose a military threat -- they were totally trashed; you can't even tell if they used to have hyperdrive. Three were probably in-system craft. One might have been interstellar (for keeping an eye on Terran space, perhaps). It looks like they were fed bombs or grenades.
Some ships are missing from the hangars, it appears. Robbie suggests we go back 15 weeks to look for survivors of the attack, which would have been only 4 weeks ago then. We vote against that, since the crisis might still be going on.
Instead, we go exploring the Destine system. The next orbit in features a large, hot gas giant with a big moon. The moon has several dome stations, but the domes are all busted. The Map of Here shows a pink haze above the domes, not labeled on the legend ... until you look WAY up and see the legend floating up in the air. "Ongoing" the time-stamp says. Hm. And the radiation is here, too.
We flit about the system some more. We find a couple of other smashed bases. And debris. And the remains of a ship. No more funny readings on the Map. Next, we start looking for bodies.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.