“Well which is it, impossible or improbable?” Hunter sounded very much like her brother when confronted with not-quite-specific-enough answers.
“Scientifically speaking, highly improbable,” Commander Curtiss replied. “In a room full of non-scientists, impossible.”
“Go over it again.”
Zony rewound the SRS visual pickup telemetry to the beginning of the feed. “The target entered the Raleo II obelisk at time code zero eight one five.”
“Got it.” Hunter had her arms folded. “That’s the Denominator.”
“He exited at time code seven nine six.” Zony scrubbed the visual record back nineteen seconds. Sure enough, the same individual exited the structure, this time carrying the object Zony had identified as “the artifact.”
The look on the commander’s face told the engineer and her fellow officers this wasn’t going to be one of those light-hearted briefings. “He exited the structure before entering it?”
“The technical term for what happened here is a temporal inversion. For us, time ostensibly moved forward at its normal rate. But for him time moved backwards. We perceived events taking place in the wrong order, while he experienced them in the correct order.”
“But we still don’t have a fix on him. This guy is running around with Atwell’s stolen technology. I want him neutralized, and now.”
“I had to go back and pull this series of readings because everything after time code eight four six indicates no life forms on the surface and no evidence they were ever there,” Zony said. “There are no heat signatures. No carbon dioxide to indicate respiration. No trace particles. No DNA.”
“Maybe he was wearing an exo-suit?” Yili offered.
“Perhaps, but only if he found a way to make it invisible. If not, he was apparently on the surface for at least six minutes without life support. Given the surface temperature, the extraordinarily low air pressure and the radiation from the Raleo primary, if he is human, he wouldn’t have lasted six minutes without the right gear.”
“Where the hell is Doctor Doverly when we need her?” Yili muttered.
“Alright, let’s stipulate for the moment you are correct,” Hunter said, her face and eyes filled with that peculiar combination of annoyance and short-tempered-ness unique to starship captains. “Where is he now?”
“Since he is traveling in spacetime instead of just space, he could be somewhere in our past.”
“How do we locate him, then?”
“We don’t have to,” Yili said. “If this is really a temporal inversion, then it is radiating outwards from its source on the planet surface.”
“That would explain all the weird readings we’ve been getting from this place,” Buckmaster said.
“Meaning we have to go down there,” Hunter said. “I need to send landing parties to the surface of Raleo II: A planet now responsible for the outright disappearance of at least three starships, and the place where Colonel Atwell, our current fugitive and Admiral Hughes all went mad.”
“Well, at least one of us is on the comeback trail.” Vice Admiral Hughes stood in the doorway to the Sai Kee briefing room.
Hunter should have looked surprised, but she wasn’t. “My apologies, sir. I meant no offense.”
“Think nothing of it, commander. I am giving no orders on this mission. I’m just here in an advisory role.”
“Admiral, you experienced the Ithis presence in a way none of us have. Do you have anything to add regarding this planet and its effect on our instruments?” Zony asked.
“All I can say for sure is that every time we experienced the ‘shifts’ caused by our use of their mechanisms, it was possible for us to be in two or more locations at once. I suspect your theory about temporal inversions is accurate, because if they made it possible to disrupt spacetime, and to travel temporally from one ‘location’ to the next, then it would be possible for one or more of us to be in two different physical locations at once in the same space.”
“Good point,” the master chief added. “Fits in nicely with their teleportation device.”
“Instead of being in two places at the same time–” Zony started.
“You’re in two places at different times,” the master chief replied.
“Is it possible we’re already somewhere else and don’t know it?” Yili asked.
The commander activated her commlink. “Hunter to bridge.”
“Report our current position.”
“Sai Kee is in a geo-synch orbit over target coordinates. Altitude 260 miles.”
“Report all contacts.”
“My only contact is Unicorn Seven, bearing one one four stationary at two million miles.”
“Acknowledged. Hunter out.”
“Minstrel?” Buckmaster asked.
“Guarding the front door along with our cybernetic attack dog,” Hunter replied. “Apparently, we’re here and not there.”
“What about the surface?” Yili asked.
“We can tie in to the ship’s surface scanners here,” Zony said. She configured the universal and switched the Sai Kee’s feed to the wall monitor. The display showed a dark structure of some kind on an amber-colored field.
“What the hell is that?” Hunter asked.
“It’s not Raleo II,” Buckmaster said. “Looks like Nebraska in the fall.” Even the admiral took a few steps forward to get a better look.
“What did you do?” Yili asked.
“I just reconfigured the surface scanners to filter for ti-particles. Our normal SRS sweeps filter them out.”
“And you left them in?”
Zony nodded. “This is what the planet looks like if we scan for unusual effects on time, which can only be produced by an energy source that generates ti-particles.”
“But that’s not Raleo II,” Hunter said. “That’s a wooden structure, and that kind of flora can’t grow this close to a B-type star.”
“That’s correct, commander. This isn’t Raleo II. This is Earth.”
Destroy All Starships is the companion series to Inversion Factor Zero!