Inversion Factor Zero Part Six

“Engineering reports SRS banks now at 96% functionality.”

“Very well. I want multiple passes on the most recent heat signatures we have readings for. Anything that tops 90% confidence I want to know about it.”

Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Islington was in no mood for nonsense. The surprise attack on Minstrel and Sai Kee almost cost two starship crews their lives. What happened to their attackers in the meantime was a deepening mystery. Neither Islington nor Hunter were known for their tolerance of guessing games. They were answers people, just like Jayce’s brother.

The crew of DSS Minstrel was accustomed to their captain’s single-minded pursuit of facts by now. It was one of the things that made the relatively light starship so dangerous. Minstrel even had a reputation among non-human commanders, and now that she was operating as the escort equivalent of a Delaware class ghost killer, nobody wanted to tangle with her absent an overwhelming tonnage advantage or a well-marked escape route.

On their approach to the Raleo system, the two starships were targeted by enemy weapons of some kind. It remained unclear why the Sarn were working so hard to keep Skywatch ships away from the Raleo system, but one thing was clear: The man known as the Denominator was responsible for the unusual events on the planet’s surface, and now he was in possession of an alien artifact. Nobody could even guess at its capabilities. While Commander Hunter and the Sai Kee investigated, it was up to Islington and Minstrel to guard the door.

“Let’s go over it again,” Islington said, turning back to the tactical display on Minstrel’s bridge. “What clear readings can you give me on the anomaly over Raleo II?”

Pilot Finn McCampbell brought up the combat tracking display. “We had three unidents in a high-speed parabolic approach to Raleo at one five one. It was pretty clear they were going to use the planet’s magnetic field to try and throw off our electronic warfare systems. We had a three by six lock on the trailing vessel’s fusion signature at one five four. Then everything went haywire.”

“Describe haywire. Was it the magnetic field?”

“Negative, ma’am. All three ships registered at exponentially higher mass for a few seconds, then they reached estimated velocities of four and five times the speed of light before we lost contact.”

“Drive fields?”

“All three vessels had functioning drive fields until 0.7 seconds before loss of contact. Contact Kilo X-Ray two dropped her drive field for some reason.”

“Is there any chance they entered Raleo II’s atmosphere?”

“If they did, we didn’t get any of the standard readings. There would have been heat signatures, radiation, particle collisions on their velocity fields, magnetic disruptions. There would have been a ton of noise.” McCampbell wasn’t in any better a mood than his captain. None of what they were seeing made any sense.

Islington got up and moved to the helm. She contemplated the tactical display. Recorded on the screen were the final readings from the three-ship formation Minstrel had been tracking before it disappeared. “They just winked out. Like someone turned off a switch.”

“That’s one way to describe it,” Finn replied. I suppose they might have engaged cloaks, but that doesn’t explain the sudden acceleration or the mass readings.”

“Hunter didn’t get anything either,” Rebecca said absently. “She wasn’t tracking the formation before it vanished, and since Sai Kee is on the other side of the planet they only got a glimpse.” The commander tapped her nails on the helm console. It was clear she was not in a very good mood. “What is it about this planet?”

“We knew we were in for a freak show, ma’am. This might just be the first act.”

“New contact!”

“I hope you’re wrong, pilot,” Islington said. “Report EWS status.”

“Our cloak is operational in all flight modes. Minstrel is at station keeping. All scanners are set for passive readings only per your orders. Unidentified contact designate Everest One Eight bearing zero seven zero mark ten. Range 200 megaclicks. Slow velocity. High gravimetrics. Possible cruiser-class vessel or heavier.”

“If they’re Sarn, I hope Raleo eats them too,” Islington muttered. “Finn, veer us off. Get me the hell away from that planet. Cal, narrow beam flash alert to Sai Kee. Transmit the position and LRS profile of unident Everest One Eight. Notify Commander Hunter Minstrel is heading for open space.”

“Affirmative, commander. Coding your message.”

“Open a channel to Black Nine.”

“You’re on, ma’am.”

“Black Nine, this is Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Islington aboard the Minstrel. Match voice print and identify.”

“Affirmative, Minstrel. Voice print matches.” The autonomous gunship’s AI was gradually taking on a more and more pleasant personality. “I presume you are aware of the Sarn Acheron-class war cruiser bearing zero seven two?”

Islington swiveled to face her signals officer. “Yes, we are, Black Nine. How do you know it is an Acheron cruiser?”

“I have compared its gravimetric signature to all 1458 Sarn vessel configurations in the Skywatch database. If it is still using the outdated fusion reactor design common to Sarn vessels at the outset of the First Praetorian War, the ship has a fatal flaw at high acceleration in certain flight modes. It is also unable to mask its engine emissions when switching from low to high power utilization in its weapons matrix.”

The scene on Minstrel’s bridge was very much like a family at Thanksgiving dinner hearing wolves howling in the front yard. Nobody spoke. They just stared at each other as if they were all experiencing the last six minutes of a “Twilight Zone” episode together.

“Affirmative, Black Nine.”

“Shall I engage the enemy?”

“Negative, Black Nine. I’d like you to go passive and shadow Minstrel’s position. I’d like you to engage your electronic warfare systems and put maximum power into jamming enemy weapons targeting sensors.”

“A fine strategy, commander. You are making use of a standard positioning pattern for cloaked starships.”

“That is correct, Black Nine. Can you carry out my instructions?”

“Yes, commander. May I make a suggestion?”

“Go ahead.”

“It would be prudent if I were to maneuver with an anti-neutron drive field envelope. This will make it possible for me to mask my engine signature if I am forced to make high energy course adjustments.”

“By all means, Black Nine. Report any unusual contacts or readings to my signals officer. Minstrel out.”

Escort frigate and gunship settled into formation and turned to intercept the inbound contact.

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Inversion Factor Zero Part Five

With DSS Minstrel in open space on quiet patrol, Hunter put Sai Kee into a more advantageous orbit. Her frigate was no longer as well concealed as it had been, but the new orbital altitude and position relative to the obelisk gave her instruments a much better vantage point for their analysis.

Hunter wasn’t satisfied with her ship’s scientific facilities. This kind of investigation required a true science team with the latest gear. Granted, she had a couple of the fleet’s most promising officers on her team, but they were hamstrung by their rustic laboratory. Commander Tixia had managed to upgrade their communications systems, but the right kind of lab gear was either present or absent. It couldn’t be improvised, unfortunately.

Zony saw and heard the hail before anyone else. She presumed this was the moment Sai Kee would be contacted with the Denominator’s terms. After all, he had somehow managed to start utilizing the technology on the ground. Only Heaven knew what he would be able to accomplish with it. Commander Hunter’s mission to stop him got more urgent each time the hail notification went off. Then the signals officer noticed something strange. The hail had a Skywatch identifier.

“Commander we’re being hailed by Lieutenant Leach.”

Hunter swiveled in her command chair and hesitated with a confused expression before replying “That’s interesting. Lieutenant Leach is on deck four checking planetside gear for his landing party.”

Zony just stared back. Of all the things in the world Hunter knew her brother’s communications officer would never get wrong, it was a hailing frequency identifier. “Put it on screen.”

The image of Devin Leach appeared. In the background was a shadowy chamber that looked like the set for a Charles Dickens theatrical production.

“Ready to deliver my report, ma’am. We’ve found a girl here armed with a Sarn disruptor. We haven’t caught him yet, but I’d say we’re on the trail of our man.”

“Acknowledged, landing party. Stand by.” Hunter changed the status of the lieutenant’s channel from her command console and activated the ship’s 1MC. “Lieutenant Leach report to the bridge on the double.” The commander swiveled again and stared at Zony with a special brand of the trademark Hunter “what the hell is going on?” look. Somewhere below, the battleship Argent’s weapons officer was ostensibly hurrying to deck one. It only took him 40 seconds. Devin Leach appeared in the egress hatch for the bridge. Hunter calmly reactivated the hailing frequency. She stared at Leach as his own face appeared on the Sai Kee bridge viewscreen.

“Lieutenant, I’d like you to continue your search for any technology that is out of place. Report to me directly in 30 minutes, affirmative?”

“Yes ma’am,” the viewscreen Leach said. His counterpart on the bridge stood with his face draining of its color.

“Very well, Sai Kee out.” Hunter closed the channel and allowed the silence to reign for a few moments.

“Why do I have two lieutenants named Leach, when before I only had one?”

“I never expected to be literally talking to myself, ma’am.”

Hunter turned to Zony. “Commander?”

“The transmission we received was from the future. Or at least one possible future for us.”

“So now we have to evaluate what we see and hear based on what timeline it originated from? What if I don’t send the landing party now?”

“It will alter our history, I think.” Zony replied. “Yili’s the real expert on temporal theory, ma’am. I just run the radio.” Zony smiled sweetly. Jayce almost grinned, but somehow managed to keep a straight face. She turned back to Leach. “Carry on, lieutenant.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“Zony, we’re going to need some kind of a briefing and some kind of procedure to make sure we don’t inadvertently violate some kind of four-dimensional physics here.”

“Aye, ma’am. Commander Curtiss and I will do our best.”

“Very well. Get me a status update on surface conditions and let’s get our boots down there as soon as possible. Just out of curiosity, commander, where is ‘there?’ as you see it?”

Zony switched the main display to a graphical representation of the starship Sai Kee occupying several different oval-shaped colored regions. The ship was at the center. One end of each of the six ovals all intersected around the center point. One of the regions was marked “present day and location” while the others were marked “alternate time and location” and numbered one through five.

“If we presume what is happening to this region of space is the result of a temporal inversion, then this is one of the theoretically possible models. Our ship is positioned at a certain physical location. So is our drive field. Since we’ve never actually been in real space since we arrived, it is reasonable to assume our physical location could correspond with the same locations in multiple timelines and in multiple physical representations of our own universe.”

“How does that get me two lieutenants?”

“Once he left the ship, he may have entered one of the alternate timelines. For him, time may have moved forward at a different speed. In fact, time may be moving at many different speeds for us relative to any alternate universes we might inhabit at the moment. No pun intended.”

“Is there any way to track all this with any kind of specificity, or are we just guessing?” Hunter asked.

“It’s all theoretical until one or more of us inhabits one of the alternate timelines. Once we’ve ‘landed’ so to speak, then we might be able to determine ‘when’ we are as well as ‘where.'”

“Alright I want everyone on board briefed on all this, and you’re in charge, Zony. Minstrel too. You and Commander Curtiss will keep everyone up to date on all the variables. I want special care taken to make sure we don’t inadvertently alter history or do something that might have ramifications elsewhere. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Very well let’s get to it. Your first meeting will be with the lieutenant and his landing party. Since we know what we’re looking for now, I want them max attentive to the potential presence of alien technology on the ground. What is your best guess as to where they are headed?”

“Ombersley, England. Somewhere in the late 19th century.”

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Inversion Factor Zero Part Four

“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.”

“Bridge, Roscoe.”

“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.”

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Inversion Factor Zero Part Three

The interior of Saint Andrew’s was that special kind of dark that happened on overcast days when the sun was near the horizon. Lieutenant Leach often surmised it was darker than night, if that were even possible. The bite in the crisp air reminded him of the minutes before a storm, even though he was positive there was no chance of rain. His party’s stark artificial lights flashed back and forth as the team worked in a two by two formation to clear the facility.

“What have you got, able crewman?”

“Life signs in the vicinity, sir. Can’t lock their location,” Tooley replied.

“Probably some level of lead in the stone used to build this place,” Able Crewman Robinett replied. “Could be responsible for the interference.”

“What about structure?” Leach replied, playing his handheld torch across the ceiling. The rotted straw and wood framing looked worn. There was nothing remarkable about the larger rooms. The furniture was gone, which the lieutenant thought was odd. Otherwise, the place looked and felt abandoned.

“There’s a basement roughly half the square footage of the main level. Living quarters are located on the second floor bearing one one six.”

The team moved slowly up a narrow passage towards an open window. The curtains looked as if they had been dipped in mud.

“Life reading,” Tooley said quietly. “Clean signal. Bearing three two five. Fifteen yards.”

Leach raised his blaster and pointed the torch with his off-hand. The squad moved as one up the hall to an open doorway leading to a side chamber. The lieutenant leaned forward. The girl was maybe fourteen years of age. Harmless, except for the fact she was pointing a Sarn disruptor pistol at Leach.

Tooley moved to the edge of the doorway behind the lieutenant and ran a fast biometric analysis on the girl. Leach held his hands up and stepped into the room.

“We’re not going to hurt you. I promise.”

The girl’s hand trembled. “You stay back! I’ve seen flintlocks! I know what they can do!” Her hair and clothing made it look like she had been roaming the village for days. Leach wasn’t a doctor, but he guessed she was malnourished. She had definitely been wearing the same clothes for a while.

“You’re right. It would do a lot of damage. But you don’t need to worry, because we’re here to protect you. Now why don’t you hand me that pistol and let’s find you some water and something to eat.” Leach did his best to keep his voice steady and reassuring. The girls’ eyes told the story. The recent days of her life had likely been nothing short of catastrophic. It was something the lieutenant and all the other officers leading landing parties had been expecting. Nobody knew for sure what the Denominator had done or said to these people, and it was a foregone conclusion none of them were prepared for the technology he had brought with him. Hell, the Skywatch crews pursuing him weren’t prepared.

There were so many unanswered questions. It was Leach’s job, however, to make sure the answer to this question didn’t result in dead crew members or civilians. He held his hand out. Moments earlier, he had done a magnificent job of slipping his own weapon under his tunic without anyone noticing. He smiled.

“Come on. We’re here to help.”

The girl’s eyes darted back and forth between the lieutenant and the three crewmen behind him in the doorway. It seemed like Leach’s words had an effect, because the tenseness in the girl’s shoulders subsided. The weight of the gun she was holding rapidly overcame her strength. The weapon dangled in her grasp for an instant before Leach slid his fingers around it and expertly set the safeties. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it had been set on maximum power. One shot would have turned the southwest corner of the church into a two million degree cloud of protoplasm and debris.

While two of Leach’s squad members broke out some water and food for the girl, the lieutenant and ACFC Tooley performed an analysis of the room. It was the only room so far they had found furnished, which was enough to raise the antennas of the landing party by itself. The presence of a disruptor pistol and more importantly, a Sarn disruptor pistol, was more than enough to set Leach on high alert.

“It’s not a mock-up, sir. That weapon is charged and active.”

“Where did she get it? Did Hunter’s fugitive run through here passing out alien weaponry?”

“Unknown, but if the population of this village has access to our level of technology, we better be prepared for something other than wooden furniture and metal plates.”

“Agreed. Run a standard sweep on this thing. If there’s anything unusual about it, and especially if there is anything that tells me where it came from, I want to know about it. Robinett, I want a medical scan of the girl. Make sure she’s healthy enough to travel and find her some shoes. We’re scheduled to check-in with the Sai Kee in a few minutes.”

“Aye, lieutenant,” Robinett replied.

“Anything between here and the exit I should know about?”

“Negative, sir. No contacts within three hundred yards.”

“When you’ve completed your analysis report to me in the main hall.” Leach leaned out into the narrow corridor to make sure there wasn’t a squad of Sarn blood guards marching towards him, then he slipped out and started towards what he surmised was the church’s dining room. He was drawing on his admittedly rusty knowledge of history to guide his curiosity. They still hadn’t found the sanctuary or any of the other areas recognizable as “church” to a layman, but there was something about the large room they had just left that just didn’t sit right with the lieutenant.

Whatever it was, he wanted to make sure it was part of his report to Commander Hunter.

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Inversion Factor Zero Part Two

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.

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Inversion Factor Zero Part One

The sky looked ominous. As ironic as that was, Lieutenant Devin Leach was in no mood for puns. Every puddle he trudged through threatened to soak through his boots. Of all the people in the detail, it was Leach who knew better than most the dangers of wet socks. Not only were they a morale drain, in this kind of climate they were more likely than not to set off a wide variety of annoying medical hazards. Normally, the lieutenant and his team would be wearing gear appropriate for the climate. But this situation was about as far from normal as any officer could imagine. Even in the best of circumstances, they were going to have to keep every piece of current technology they had hidden and replace their normal routine with something more contemporary.

According to their maps, the village was only a quarter mile away. It seemed strange they could see no cattle or people in any direction, even on the road. One would think that someone would at least be hauling wares to or from the settlement, or simply getting water, but there wasn’t a soul to be found. A breeze caught the tall grass and caused the posts of the nearby fence to creak.


“Negative, sir.”

The lieutenant’s second was a promising young Able Crewman First Class on his first surface mission. High-ranking fleet enlisted were in short supply given the sudden need for specialists of all stripes, so it fell to the up-and-coming crew members to take up the slack. The lieutenant’s four-person squad was as green as a spring pond, but like all officers Leach was a believer in the old adage of combat experience: “Nothing grows until it’s buried in fertilizer.”

Leach wasn’t a big fan of leading men in a line up an unfamiliar road. Fleet or not, all Skywatch officers were trained for surface warfare. All officer candidates were regaled at one point or another by stories of the redcoats marching into combat in formation, dozens abreast. It was surely a proper and disciplined and an altogether British way of waging war, but the English, and as it turned out the Japanese, French, Germans, Chinese and Spanish as well were disabused of its effectiveness by the passage of time and the inexorable march of military technology.

None could fail to recognize the excellence of her Majesty’s navies, and their dominance of a world’s seas for nearly three centuries. Her armies, on the other hand, at least in the lieutenant’s opinion, didn’t have quite the same reputation. Leach, still more centuries removed from musket and formation, performed the same calculus as the officers of the ancient crown when evaluating risks. He didn’t like leading men in a line up a road with wide open fields of fire in every direction in a potentially dangerous place. Granted, ACFC Tooley was a capable SRS tech. His equipment was in fine working order, and he had been advised personally by the Chief Signals Officer of a battleship. It still didn’t change the lieutenant’s attitude.

Somewhere a few hundred miles overhead, the starship Sai Kee was on station, coordinating heavily disguised landing parties at various points across central England. The lieutenant was quite sure Skywatch Command was going to be very interested to hear Commander Jayce Hunter’s explanation for her ship’s current position, to say nothing of the fact Sai Kee technically wasn’t even her ship. Up to now the admiralty hadn’t demonstrated much of a grasp of what the Perseus crews had been up against. It was pretty unlikely they were going to understand why the commander had ordered her frigate to pursue one man into humanity’s ancient past. Admiral Powers would get it. The others would probably be a little slow.

What both the lieutenant and the commander did know was that if Sai Kee failed in her current mission, the early days of the Second Praetorian War were likely to be rather unfavorable, and that was the optimistic analysis. In fact, if Hunter didn’t catch the maniac she had now chased across five hundred years of history, whatever remained of the human race would be unlikely to survive at all. If they did, the next thousand years were going to make the Dark Ages look like a Saturday Evening Post cover.

“Feels like we’ve walked into a history book, sir,” Tooley offered.

Leach sighed. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it. I hope we can find what we’re looking for and get out of here quick.”

“What are we looking for, sir?”

“Like Commander Tixia says, we’ll know it when we see it. I just hope these people don’t mistake us for shamans or something and burn us at the stake.”

“Are they that superstitious, sir?” Tooley didn’t sound like he wanted to hear the answer.

“If there’s any sanity in the parish, it will be domiciled at Saint Andrew’s. At least that’s what the library computer thinks. Three quarters of a click bearing two zero six.”

“I’ve got intermittent life signs, sir, but nothing I can lock in,” Tooley said. He looked frustrated, as if his tools weren’t quite showing the readings he expected.

“Lieutenant?” One of the squad riflemen indicated a sign along the edge of the road. It read “Ombersley – Population 308.” Although they were called “riflemen” by regulation, on this mission, the heaviest weapon they had was a TK-12. Concussion rifles were tougher to hide, and the last thing Leach needed was a disruptor wave taking out half of someone’s barn.

The sound of a crow’s call floated over the road.

“Well, at least the birds are home,” Leach said. “Remember your cover names and make sure all your rank insignia is hidden or removed. Weapons at 20% power. Watch your targets. Everyone here is a civilian.”

“Except one,” Tooley added.

“Except one.” Leach led the squad towards the nearest of the shadowy structures standing against the late day light.

Destroy All Starships is the companion series to Inversion Factor Zero!
Available now!