Zony Tixia prided herself on her ability to interpret SRS data. It was one of the key functions of a signals tech. If a commanding officer or section chief asked “what the hell am I looking at?” the signals specialist had to be able to provide some kind of answer. What a starship can see, the old teaching went, made the difference in any operation. The Short Range Scanner banks were the workhorse eyes of the fleet, while the high gain antennas were the ears. Zony was the expert in both.
When unusual readings on the surface of Raleo Two were picked up by the starship Sai Kee, after the attack, the ship’s refitted SRS banks got the best look. At least that was the theory. Commander Hunter had look-down probes in the atmosphere over the planet, and had even ordered her ship to employ energy-intensive multi-spectrum scans at a time when the relatively small vessel could least afford the energy expenditure. And yet, despite all the technology they had mustered, after an hour of trying to interpret the data, Zony still couldn’t make heads nor tails of what had actually happened on the planet surface.
“Any luck?” Yili was stirring creamer into a coffee-filled “smash-em-up cup,” Skywatch fleet’s nickname for the ersatz hot beverage containers dispensed by the autoserv machines in hallway galleys.
Zony didn’t answer.
“Uh oh, I know that look, and that non-answer,” Yili said. She stood at the light table in what had been designated as the new Sai Kee war deck. The playback of the SRS visuals went by at five frames per second. The pickups had been trained on an area near what everyone had agreed was the “obelisk” Colonel Atwell had mentioned in so many of his stories about the Ithis and their galactic civilization. On the screen, the man identified by Skywatch Intelligence as “The Denominator” emerged from the structure carrying something in his hand bright enough to cast sharp, intense shadows in every direction. The sensor locks on the energy readings and the distortion from the obelisk suddenly shifted and began moving in the direction the Denominator was traveling, and then the view went white.
“You need a break, commander. You’ve been at that light table for hours.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Zony replied. “I have 40 minutes of full spectrum readings tracking this guy from his ship to the obelisk and then back out into the atmosphere again, and all I can say for sure is he isn’t Colonel Atwell.”
“Possible Atwell was concealing his identity? Jamming our instruments?” Yili asked, taking a sip of the fleet’s best coffee. Commander Tixia and the master chief had made a point of transporting the Ajax-Argent coffee brew to their new command. Chasing down end-of-the-world maniacs was one thing. Doing it while enduring bad coffee was simply not tolerable.
“It’s possible. I can’t vouch for any of these readings. What I can say is whatever he carried back out of that structure had its own gravity.”
“Well doesn’t everything have its own gravity?”
“According to the telemetry, sufficient mass would have made him a half-ton heavier, even on Raleo II, and as you can see, he’s almost running when he re-establishes LOS with probe four.”
“I’ll be pickled,” Yili said. “Raleo II’s gravity is what, 0.7 Terran? That thing’s the size of a football and it weighs 1200 pounds?”
“If these gravimetrics are accurate,” Zony said, rewinding the playback.
“You’re not buying it.”
“Everything goes white 2.7 seconds after he emerges. There’s no way he could have detected probe four, or us for that matter. We were geosynchronous at an altitude of 318 miles. Probe four was nine degrees off our polar intercept at an altitude of 211 miles. Even with all the right equipment, he would have needed a half dozen passes to localize, and even then he would need even more gear to overload the wavelengths.”
“Couldn’t do all that in three seconds.”
“There’s something else going on here, engineer. Something jammed our instruments with technology I’ve never encountered.”
“Let me stop you right there, commander pink. There is no way Jayce is going to authorize another trip to the surface. The landing parties are one thing. Her senior officers aren’t.”
Zony looked up. “She has to. It’s the only way to run down the facts. The Able Crewmen are eager hard-chargers, but they don’t have the experience to know what they are analyzing.”
“Now let’s get this straight. This is a Hunter we’re talking about. If she gets it in her mind something down there is dangerous–”
“She’ll let me go.”
“Sure, with a squad of paranoid marines armed with rocket launchers! You’re the one and only ‘can’t risk’ crew member on this trip.”
“Okay, I’ll recruit a landing party and we’ll arm ourselves.”
“You’re going to have to tell her why.”
Zony rewound the footage again. “Because if what I suspect is true, we can solve the mystery of that obelisk and everything we discovered at Bayone.”
“We’ve gotten stonewalled before. Jayce was about as unhappy as I’ve ever seen her after the Lethe Deeps incident.”
“This time I’ve got the goods. How long has it been since we’ve heard from our landing parties?”
“Everyone is due to check in at the cardinal orbit in about 20 minutes. We can’t get clear reception until then.”
“Good, because we still don’t know what they found when they hit the surface.”
Curtiss left the signals expert to her SRS telemetry. Zony wasn’t entirely sure yet, but there was something unusual about the white-out. It wasn’t the fact that it happened, it was the way it happened. Commander Tixia had reviewed thousands of hours of SRS data in her career and in her time at the Academy. It was a truism in the signals corps that all the best stuff always happens at the beginning and the end of any given “tape” as the blocks of telemetry data were called. For whatever reason, unusual readings always seemed to congregate at the beginning and end of the tape.
When it came to the footage from probe four, the truism was gradually emerging. The commander was zeroing in on the last 0.68 seconds of information recorded by the probe. After that interval, the device stopped trying to gather information, likely due to the fact it was unable to do so. When look-down probes encountered such situations, they responded by transmitting a “loss of signal” error, also known as “LOSIG.” Probe four’s LOSIG was received right after the 0.68 seconds of unusual information it recorded. Somewhere in the visual interference and static was what Zony began to suspect was rather important information. If she stuck with it, she might be able to coax it out of the storm of nonsense in the last bits of SRS telemetry.
Then she needed to know what Hunter’s landing parties had found.
Destroy All Starships is the companion series to Inversion Factor Zero!