Incident at Tau 226
by Vicky Morgan-Keith
Freeg longed for a bath. The reek of stale sweat and other bodily odors permeated the Illyrian’s survival suit, causing his lone eye to water. He doubted he’d ever get it out, even when he and his partner, Brong, were finished here. They had been working a week of grueling double shifts on a small chunk of asteroid designated Tau 226 with only what few creature comforts they’d brought with them. Hence the small mining camp he and Brong had established was minimally equipped, with their InhabitaBubble boasting only a teensy sink nestled beside the cramped head. No chance of a bath here, not even a shower. Besides, double shifts meant precious little time to grab some food and a few hours of sleep before getting right back to work. Brong wanted them to mine enough Ultonium to fill their ship’s hold and be gone as soon as possible. You never knew when pirates would show up.
Never mind, Freeg thought as he swung his mining pick, freeing a large chunk of ore from a tunnel wall they’d excavated only two days ago. The Ultonium we mine here will pay for plenty of spare suits and then some! He grinned, recalling their initial disappointment with this region and how they had almost left this amazing fortune behind.
He and his partner had discovered the tiny planetoid while scouting and surveying the Andoris sector of the Outer Reaches. Like many other prospectors, they were searching for Ultonium. They’d begun sweeping the sector with high hopes, but had found little of interest. Scanners had shown a few signatures here and there, but they’d been weak. Brong, tired of scrimping from one small claim to the next, deemed them not worth their effort. Disheartened, they were preparing to head for the nearest outpost to resupply when their scanners pinged a potential site. Freeg’s eye had nearly popped out of its eyestalk, and Brong had clapped him on the back in elation. The signature they’d found was astonishing! None of their previous mining sites came close.
They had set down and quickly made camp, sending an immediate comm message to the Galactic Defense Force base that patrolled this area to register their claim and report their mining op. Using the ship’s drill and retrieval claw, they gathered some samples to determine the best places to dig, excavated several tunnels, and began to mine.
Freeg paused a moment for breath and checked his chronometer even though he knew the shift was far from over. Two more weeks, maybe three, and they would return home rich males. Barring any trouble from pirates, of course. He glanced at a nearby monitor mounted along the tunnel wall. The display showed a view of their ship and camp, and the Illyrian nodded to himself in satisfaction. All appeared to be in order, and if anything did come calling, he and Brong would be alerted by the proximity alarms they had placed around the perimeter of the mining site.
He returned to his work, thinking fondly of a pretty Illyrian GDF patrol officer he’d met at the outpost last time they had resupplied. Leedra, she’d said her name was. She had filled out her GDF uniform quite nicely in Freeg’s opinion, and her rose-colored skin was a lovely contrast to her pale green hair and her striking blue eye. She had agreed to join him for a drink when she was off duty, and that drink had turned into a rather memorable dinner. Freeg smiled to himself. Yeah, he was definitely going to have to look her up when he got back.
Brong’s excited voice crackled over the suit’s comm, rousing Freeg from his pleasant musings. “Freeg! You’ve got see this! Freeg! Do you read? It’s unbelievable! The mother lode! I’m telling you!”
Freeg keyed the com button on his suit. “Reading you, Brong, but slow down. What’s going on? What’d you find?”
He could hear his partner puffing with exertion. “Amazing! Broke through the wall into some kind of chamber, a void in the asteroid’s structure! Freeg! It’s filled with crystals! Hundreds of them! Maybe thousands! Scanner shows them to be almost pure Ultonium! Much purer than the ore we’ve been digging! Get down here right away! I’m going to s– if I ca– ge– in th– and –ther some!”
Freeg began hastily picking up his gear. “Brong? You’re breaking up! Wait for me before you go in,” he cautioned. “If it’s a cave, there might be some creature living in it. Hang on, I’m on my way.”
He hurried down the tunnel, his tool pack banging against his side in his haste. “I’m i–s–de,” he heard Brong say, “I’m-”
The com went dead with a high pitched shriek just as Freeg reached the junction to the tunnel his partner had been working. He peered down the dark shaft, now lit only by the glimmer of light coming from the helmet of his suit. “Brong?” he called softly. No answer came, nothing save silence and the sound of his own frightened breathing. For a brief moment, Freeg considered leaving, telling himself he would go get help and come back. Then, knowing he could not abandon his friend, he drew his pistol and made his way carefully along the tunnel wall as quietly as he could. “Brong?” he called again. “Brong, where are you?”
Still no answer. Freeg put a hand on one wall, feeling his way along the tunnel using the limited light of his helmet, his pistol at the ready in the other. In the darkness of the mine shaft, he almost missed the opening into the chamber his partner had mentioned, but a strange luminous shape swirled briefly into view, casting a soft glowing light with its passage. Freeg blinked, wondering if his eye was playing tricks on him, for no sooner had he seen it, than the apparition flitted from view, apparently retreating back inside the cave.
He cast about, but found no sign of his partner. Creeping up to the hole Brong had broken through the rocky wall, Freeg peered cautiously within. His helmet light glinted off a myriad of crystal formations, scattering light about the chamber. Twisting and turning about these formations were what Freeg could only comprehend as strands or amorphous shapes of light. They seemed to move through the crystals as well as around them, apparently unimpeded by solid matter. They made no sound Freeg could detect and glowed with a soft pale blue hue. They were quite beautiful, like dancing tongues of azure flame. Coming together to form a larger shape, then breaking apart into smaller ones, they seemed to be perpetually in motion.
Freeg started to climb into the chamber, then dropped his gaze to see a desiccated corpse lying on the stony floor. Horror crept up his spine as he realized the corpse was wearing Brong’s survival suit. He cried out, tumbling back into the main tunnel. One of the glowing forms broke away from the others and moved toward him. Alarmed, Freeg scrambled back down the tunnel in retreat, pistol held at the ready. The wisp of light kept coming.
The Illyrian fired. The beam struck the light, causing it to flare with a momentary brilliance, but otherwise appeared to pass harmlessly through it. The creature continued to approach, its illumination beginning to scintillate in a rapid pattern. Other wisps of light began emerging from the chamber, some of them through the very walls of the tunnel.
Freeg turned and fled.
“So what can you tell us regarding the incident with the contractor? The miner?”
Renowned Earth scientist, Dr. Helen Salinger, accepted a cup of coffee from a GDF aide with muttered thanks before turning to address the assembled officers and officials before her. They sat in the main briefing room of the administration complex for OR1, the GDF’s main base on Orton V. The planet was located in one of the more populated systems of the Outer Reaches which meant her journey there from her research facility on Terra Prime had only been slightly hellish. The transport she’d managed to hire was loud, cramped, uncomfortable, and in dubious repair. A brief nap before speaking would have been welcome, but she stifled a yawn and contented herself with the coffee. Taking a last scan of her notes from her datapad, she nodded to the aide and gestured to the viewscreen behind her. She stepped aside as it flickered to life.
“Before I get to that,” she replied. “If I may please direct your attention to the monitor, ladies and gentlemen.” As she spoke, several visuals began flashing across the screen. “These are images of various Ultonium mining facilities, located in different areas of the Reaches as well as other parts of the galaxy.” She paused the display, setting it to multi-view, and pointed to an area on each of the images showing a faint haze in an unusual starburst pattern. “These anomalous markings appear where the strongest concentration of Ultonium is found in each mine.”
Not pausing for questions, she continued with her presentation. “Now please note these images of various Ultonium fueled craft under power. Pay particular attention to their stellar drives. Notice anything interesting?”
Lieutenant Priona Glau, adjutant to OR1’s Commander, Garreth Wilco, spoke up in her fluid Alanti voice. “The images of the space craft appear to have similar anomalous markings.”
Helen smiled. “Not just similar, Lt. Glau. Identical.”
Security Chief Shra’zon raised a massive paw for the doctor’s attention, then asked, “Could the anomalous markings be caused by the cameras that took these images?”
Helen shook her head. “We had that checked, sir. No.”
He frowned, his ears flicking back. “I don’t understand. Why hasn’t this been reported before now? And what has this got to do with the mining incident?”
“I’m getting to that,” Helen explained, holding out a hand for patience. “You see, these phenomenon are intermittent, not to mention brief, particularly the ones seemingly generated by stellar drives. They last perhaps only a fraction of a second or so. As for the mines, we think the miners thought they were seeing things not really there, and that’s why these anomalies haven’t been reported, or if they were reported, they were attributed to fatigue or stress and disregarded.”
New images sprang up on the monitor. “I’ve been conducting some experiments in my lab to research the extent of Ultonium’s power. Despite its widespread use, we still have much to learn regarding its potential energy yield. Using only the minutest quantities of Ultonium in an attempt to create what amounted to a miniature controlled explosion, I discovered the exact same pattern. And I was able to sustain it long enough to obtain some scans of the phenomenon.”
Helen pointed once again to one of the markings on the viewscreen. “This is a singularity. There is another side through this formation, and on it is a mirrored starburst pattern, just like the ones you’ve seen.”
“A counterblast,” Lt. Glau murmured.
Helen nodded. “Right. And these lights or creatures the miner saw, code named Scyla, were attracted by this ‘counterblast’, and they came through it.”
“Scyla, eh? Where did they come from?” asked Deputy Commander Brak Makster, the senior officer present.
Dr. Salinger shrugged. “That’s unknown, Commander. At least, I’m not certain. Possibly another dimension or an alternate universe.”
“Are they hostile?” Makster pressed, a scowl on his rugged face.
“Perhaps,” she replied. “In my interview with the mining contractor, Freeg, he described finding his partner’s withered remains only moments after speaking with him. And when the ‘lights’ approached him, he stated he felt they were responsible for his companion’s death, and they meant to do harm to him.”
Most of her audience stirred uneasily in their seats, muttering in disbelief. The Deputy Commander gestured for quiet. When the others settled, he motioned for her to continue, his expression as skeptical as the rest. “That’s quite a story, doctor. Most likely our little miner got spooked all alone in a dark tunnel.” A smattering of chuckles followed his remark.
“Maybe,” Helen conceded. “But consider this. Psifers tell of feeling or knowing the thoughts of others through their use of the powers of The Deep. And we know the priestesses of the Neiran Empire use a holy dust to enhance their psi-communion which can also manifest as telepathy. We’ve learned that dust contains ground Ultonium. It seems very posible there’s a connection.”
“Well, if there is, Dr. Salinger, I’m going to need more than theories and ghost stories before we review this further,” the Deputy Commander replied. “I can’t go to my superiors and request we expend resources to investigate this phenomenon based on strange lights, dust, and a scared miner’s feelings. I’m sorry, but I can’t. Thank you for your time.”
Helen watched dispiritedly as the officers filed out of the meeting room. Their reaction didn’t surprise her, but she couldn’t help being disappointed. Only Lt. Glau hung back, walking over to her as she sighed and slipped her datapad back into her coat pocket.
“I’m sorry things didn’t go well,” the Alanti said.
“Me, too,” Helen replied. “That was a very unpleasant trip for nothing.”
The Alanti cocked her head quizzically. “What will you do now?”
Helen smiled. “Are you trying to keep tabs on me for your commander, Lieutenant?”
Lt. Glau returned the smile. Helen still found the Alanti’s toothed grin a bit unsettling even though she knew the Lt. meant her no harm. “It’s the GDF’s duty to protect you, even if my superiors do not agree with your assessment.”
“Your superiors?” Helen repeated. “You believe what I’ve proposed?”
Lt. Glau frowned. “I’m…not sure. I have a brother. He’s not been with our family for many years. He’s..”
“One of the psysci!?” Helen exclaimed excitedly.
The Alanti nodded. “My brother teaches psifers at the academy on Oshania. Would you like to meet him?”
Helen grinned. “Actually, I want him to meet the miner!”
Lt. Glau blinked in surprise, then smiled that alarming smile again.