Word count: 9,267 Ghosts of the Garden Worlds "This might be it; I have a good feeling about this one." "That's what you said about the last two." "Well we've eliminated so many other systems; we're bound to find it soon." "Unless we have the wrong sector." Lloyd sighed, glanced at the local map even though it was just showing static as they transited between star systems, and then flipped the display to the map of the sector he and Rachel had been mapping out for the better part of a year. Every star system that did not turn out to be their goal was marked with a red ring around a little image of the star. There were dozens of red rings. "So you don't think we'll find it?" Lloyd pressed. They had had this same conversation numerous times by now, but there was little else to do while in transit, so repeated conversations became common. "Chances are we would have found it by now. It's not like we were picking destinations at random. We had reasons and some information to navigate on. Now we're just blindly picking from the few that remain," Rachel quickly flipped between several maps out of boredom. "You think one of the other teams has the right sector?" "I think we are about to find out if you're right about this system; we're decelerating," Rachel said, snapping into action as the navigation system reported their approach. Lloyd shifted uncomfortably in the copilot seat to her left. The small transport's engines roared in the back as it prepared to bring them back into the dimension where things were visible, sensors functioned, and communication was possible. Lloyd nervously rapped his fingers on the arm of his chair while Rachel began thinking of what system they'd try next. There was a whoosh and a slight lurch forward as they pulled out of their extra-dimensional journey. The shutters on the windows lifted and sensors began mapping out the ship's surroundings. They were on the far-side of a moon, almost on it, give or take a couple hundred-thousand miles. "Looks like there's a decent-sized planet on the far side of this moon," Rachel said, looking over their updating maps. "It has enough mass to retain an atmosphere; perhaps close to one standard gravity," Lloyd noted. "Well that's promising, at least," Rachel said, taking manual control of the ship, eager to be useful again. They crested the horizon of the moon, tracking a bronze-colored marble's rise in the distance. It was too far to get any details with the naked eye, but their sensors gleamed an abundance of information. "Oxygen-nitrogen rich atmosphere, though it does have an elevated level of carbon dioxide. There's some green vegetation, but most importantly—" Lloyd pointed at some highlighted areas on a map of the northern hemisphere. "Large pockets of radioactivity," Rachel said in almost disbelief. "I think we found it." * * * The planet was a lusterless brass color from orbit. Most of the surface was obscured by a layer of hazy clouds and dust in the upper-atmosphere. Temperatures were a lot cooler historically speaking, but they were on the rise as the haze dissipated each year. All of these things led them to believe this was one of the lost garden worlds they had been searching for, and a ragged cluster of destroyed orbital stations confirmed it. "I suppose this is Lumina," Lloyd said as they both gazed out the windows. "Look at that battle cruiser there," she pointed off to the right at a black burned out husk of a ship. "It must have been hit by a particle cannon. You can tell by the hole in the hull near the stern of the ship. You see those tiny holes that look almost like a pellet spray from a shotgun?" "How can you even tell it was a cruiser?" Lloyd asked. To him it was just a twisted body of blackened scrap metal. "The way the hull bracings are laid out near the stern. That was where the engines were, before they went into meltdown and obliterated themselves and most of the upper decks. That pattern was used to house a cruiser-type class engine. I could probably tell you the model if we got closer." Lloyd chuckled. His girlfriend knew more about old ships and navigation than he ever could. "How many people were on a ship that big?" "Usually around two-hundred," Rachel answered promptly. "Though with ship computers back then, those ships could operate with just a couple dozen crewmen." Their ship alerted them that atmospheric entry was beginning, so the two of them strapped into their seats and braced themselves. "It's incredible how that ship has just stayed in that orbit all these years," Lloyd noted. "And it's going to be there for many years more." She grabbed the flight stick and made tiny adjustments to their approach that would make entry smoother. Even with kinetic dampers, artificial gravity, and powerful thrusters, entry was rocky and noisy. Lloyd managed navigation, reading mapping data from the surface as it came in, and tracking atmospheric conditions, while Rachel kept them on course. To make it this far only to crack up in atmosphere would have been a tremendous disappointment, though neither of them would be alive to experience it. The turbulent rocking and shaking eventually ceased at about 20,000 feet above sea level. There was a lot of dust at that altitude though, making their instruments vital. It was like being in a sandstorm: the sky was orangey-yellow and the sun was just a hazy cream blob in the distance. They abruptly broke through the shelf of dust, with nothing else separating them and the surface. They were out above a massive bay whose name was lost with the billions who died on the planet. The water had a tint of bronze to it, same as the sky, probably from dust and ash settling in the bay and being left mostly undisturbed. The floodgates at the inlet were still intact and closed, so the bay was no doubt highly polluted with stagnant water. Surrounding the bay was a sprawling metropolis, or rather the ruins of one. The heart of the city was comprised of dozens of buildings around the rim of the bay. Buildings that were once towering luxury apartments, hotels, and condos were now crumbling shells, mostly collapsed and scattered on the streets below or sunken at the bottom of the bay. Some had been bombed, and others simply gave from the lack of maintenance. Most of the city was buried under several feet of rubble. The elevated roads and tramways had collapsed, covering the streets to form mounds of concrete, glass, and twisted scrap metal, impenetrable to anything except a few sensors. There was no way any surviving life existed on this planet. The city's space elevator, or what was left of it, had collapsed in the bay, and across the northern cityscape. Immense metal rings and carbon fiber cables stretched from the base of the elevator at the center of the bay, off into the distance, disappearing amongst the flattened ruins of the north. The entire structure probably snapped after the space station it was tethered to was destroyed. Gravity and the spin of Lumina brought the long tube of rings and cables whipping down through the atmosphere. The impact such a collapse must have caused probably shook many of the buildings in the city down. The north, where the furthest end impacted, must have experienced the strongest earthquake the planet ever saw. Anything in the impact zone, including the parts of the elevator, were no doubt obliterated. The sonic boom from the remains of the elevator breaking atmosphere was beyond estimation; like a whip cracking the air, only on a grander scale. "Oh wow, look at that!" Rachel said as she pointed off at the northeast, where buildings had been shorter and more dispersed. The aft section of a massive ship stood high above the rubble of the neighborhood. Its rear thrusters were up in the air a good 1,000 feet, and almost entirely intact. "That ship must have been huge," Lloyd said breathlessly. "That's definitely a class A super carrier. Those ships were two to six miles long with crews in the tens of thousands. They were literally flying cities with weapons that could level a continent from orbit, and enough support crafts aboard to darken the skies over a city." "Where is the rest of the ship? That's only the tail section." "Disintegrated, with some of it just buried hundreds of feet underground. They hit the surface hard. They came in from orbit, probably at close to full throttle. They wanted to hit the ground hard; produce a blast powerful enough to level this entire section of the city. An impact like that would have killed just about anything for miles around above and below ground," Rachel said. "More than likely their enemies were underground, and they had been shelling the city trying to get to them." "The thrusters are still intact, so they probably just didn't have enough power to jump to FTL, or their FTL drive was badly damaged. That's a wreck I'd love to explore." "Maybe before we leave. Let's see what we can find in the city, first." * * * Their tiny transport ship settled down in a dusty field about a mile from the remains of the colossal ship. Lloyd and Rachel stood in airlock, suiting up for the part of the mission they had been waiting months for. With an exchange of nods, Lloyd flipped a latch and the airlock door slid ajar. They hesitated for a few seconds, taking in the gravity of the moment: they were probably the first living people to walk on that planet in almost two centuries. The air had a slight metallic taste to it, mixed with some fine dust that irritated the nose. The readings detected nothing dangerous in the atmosphere aside from some dust and a little more carbon dioxide than a garden world should possess, but they put their helmets on and clamped the seals, just to be safe. It was doubtful an alien pathogen developed there, especially in such an arid inhospitable environment. The field they had landed in was nothing more than loose dirt and scraggly grass that indicated infrequent rainfall. There were some scattered trees with barely green leaves, but most of the field was barren. They moved off north in the direction of the giant ship's corpse, speaking not a word, only listening to the sounds of a dead world. Small clouds of dust swirled about them from the unobstructed gusts of wind coming off the bay to the south. To the north the enormous black tail stood over a sea of rubble, and to the south, tattered remains of skyscrapers and elevated rail lines. They were on a hill which gave some vantage over much of the surrounding city. The destruction seemed almost uniform. Imagining what it all looked like before was next to impossible. The field came to an end near a decimated school and playground. Most of the jungle gym was gone, leaving only a few solitary metal beams standing. One swing was left mostly intact, though age had deteriorated the seat. Rachel stroked the chain and gave it a light tug, snapping it in a dozen spots. Lloyd flung around, startled from the racket that interrupted the wind that had become white noise. Rachel shrugged, still holding a piece of the rusted chain in her hand. Both of them were recording video and audio from their helmets. The Committee that had sent them and thousands of others out to comb through past settled space wanted as much information as possible relating to these old worlds. A lot of information had been forgotten following the war, either accidently lost or intentionally forgotten. Many details regarding the war itself were unknown simply because most of the people of the New Core Worlds lived on isolated colonies far from the rest of settled space. They hadn't known about the mutually-assured destruction the rest of their species had been carrying out until handfuls of survivors began stumbling across their worlds as they fled their own burning ones. The streets were mostly clear of debris as the buildings in that section of town were much smaller than the skyscrapers that had buried the south. It made the short walk easier, but no less haunting. Empty partially-collapsed buildings stood on both sides of the street they walked along. Their black windows, some with tattered drapes flapping in the breeze, looked unoccupied but still claimed, as though the original owners would return to reclaim them. Most of the homes and apartments were now crypts for those who died within them. Families who sat in their living rooms, watching the end rain down in the form of orbital strikes from dreadnaughts in low orbit. It would have been loud and chaotic; the horizon washed in orange all hours of the day from a million fires blazing. By the end, daylight would be extinguished by the smoke and ash belched into the sky. The few survivors left stranded more than likely froze to death before anything else. They reached their destination which turned out to be a town hall. During their flight Lloyd surveyed the area and noticed the building had fared better than the ones surrounding it. Judging by many characteristics, it seemed the building might have been municipal. The sign on what used to be the lawn indicated it was the town hall. The northern wing was obliterated, nothing left but concrete and steel, but the southern wing was mostly intact, so they managed a way in. Inside was a dark mess with bits of furniture and paper strewn all over the place. They tried reading some of them, but most had lost their print, or were in other languages. In one of the dozens of rooms they searched, a computer was left buried beneath a busted desk and a mountain of moldy old books. Lloyd dug it out and rigged up a way to read the files off it. Most of it was useless information, but it did paint a better picture of what the surrounding area was like before the cataclysm. "Anything interesting?" Rachael asked. "Not really. The header on a lot of these documents says Lumina was part of the Free Worlds Union, but that's about all I'm finding related to the war." "At least we know what side they were on," Rachel said. They spent a while longer searching the ruins, but didn't find much else. They had some key answers to questions revolving around one of the famous garden worlds; the short answer to many of them being it's a graveyard. It was uninhabitable, and probably would remain so for another few million years. Outside was a small walled-off garden: some kind of meeting place when the city still functioned. Many of the plants were withered with many more simply gone, leaving a dusty hole for a garden. There were a few trees left alive with some scarce leaves; the bark on them thick with a silver tinge. They had to be old judging by the sizes of them, but all they did now was cast shadows on the crumbling patio through their sick olive-brown leaves in the dirty sunlight. "I wonder what the last meeting here was like," Rachel said, looking around the empty patio where terrified community members and their government representatives must have met during their final hours. In the distance, the ship loomed; probably the thing that killed most of the people in this area. By then everything must have seemed so trivial and hopeless. Did the space elevator come down before the ship did? What were they thinking when they saw their link with the outside world come down? The entire garden seemed to have taken on a new purpose following the destruction of the community around it. The old silver trees, the sun-bleached brick walls, the patio tiles cracked by decades of ice and wind, they all seemed to compliment each other, as though their new reason for existence was to paint this quietly disturbing image of a place long abandoned. And now, after having rooted up these thoughts and emotions inside Lloyd and Rachel, these things could simply disappear; their purpose served. "What do you think happens next?" Lloyd asked. "We go back home with everything we found, give our report to the Committee, and then probably get a new assignment." "Yeah but what happens after that? What happens here?" Rachel hesitated for a moment. "That's a good question," she said. " I'm not sure if anyone has thought that far ahead. This planet is a wasteland, so it seems unlikely we'd want to rebuild it. There are planets closer to our own that would be easier to develop on. Chances are this place is going to be left alone a while longer." "I'm beginning to think that'd be our best bet," Lloyd said. "That's not to say this place is useless. All the technology we could study here; it's a bounty of knowledge." "I think all the bodies should tell us something about this technology." Lloyd sighed. "I'm not sure; I think we might be making a mistake poking around places like this." * * * Amongst the countless flattened shops and houses, a few buildings remained standing. They poked through a couple of these places on their way back to the ship, until discovering some human remains in a house, granting further insight into the grim fate of many residents whom lived there, expediting their return to the ship. Back aboard and fully decontaminated, Lloyd was ready to leave and never return. "We should check the crash out," Rachel said as she warmed up the engines for liftoff, not as eager to leave as Lloyd. "What for?" Lloyd asked, already plotting their course off-world. "There might be something useful aboard." "We aren't here to loot," Lloyd said dismissively. "Not for ourselves. Think about how advanced that ship must have been. We couldn't build a thing like that in a hundred years. There's bound to be a few things in there that would improve life tenfold back home. Just think about how advanced the life-support system must be. I doubt they had to manually change air filters on a weekly basis." Lloyd sighed. "I think it should be up to the Committee to decide what to do with salvage." Sighing again he mulled the idea over more. She was right, of course, things were rough with their current ships. A lot of technology had been lost, and that was holding back colonization of new worlds. Almost everything had taken a couple steps back following the war, and restoration was taking far too long. The core worlds were facing dozens of problems, and that was partly the reason the Committee was formed. The other reason being the famous last broadcast of the war. Eight years prior, before the New Core Worlds alliance existed, the nine planets that still hosted human life maintained strict zero-communication policies with the outside galaxy, policies dating back to before the war even began. During the war they remained off the grid, and by the time it ended, the policies had become ingrained; frightened of the outside galaxy and their fellow humans, the colonies kept quiet. Decades after the war had burned out, the colonies continued to receive signals from the war. Insecure signals that did not travel instantaneously, these messages traveled for years until becoming distorted relics of the past. These stray broadcasts only fed fears of humans expanding once again. Eventually the signals stopped, but not before a final one came through significantly stronger and clearer than all the rest. It wasn't addressed to anyone in particular; in fact, it wasn't addressed to anyone at all, just a message to an empty galaxy. It was a time capsule for future life to come across; explaining the sad fate of a species. Ronald Talton, a Fleet Admiral for the Republic, broadcasted his message from The Mariner, presumably before going down with it. His message conveyed utter despair for, what he called, the final chapter in human history, for he believed he had witnessed the loss of the final refuge of civilization. "To the few remaining souls out there," Admiral Talton addressed, "I can only express the deepest remorse a human being can. There is no greater shame than to be responsible for this level of devastation. And to anyone else listening, extra-terrestrials perhaps, learn from our mistakes, and never repeat them." All nine worlds received the final broadcast, spurring changes in social philosophies and policies, eventually ending the communication blackout on several worlds. It didn't take long for the nine remaining worlds to discover one another, and The New Core Worlds alliance was founded, with the Committee being established to explore and potentially recover lost technology, knowledge, and worlds. Lloyd stared at the ancient ship in the distance with mixed feelings of uncertainty. They had done what the job required: they had the location and condition of Lumina which would be enough for the Committee, but he had to agree with Rachel, it wasn't satisfying. Months of searching only to confirm what they already believed just didn't feel right. He was beginning to have serious reservations about disturbing these worlds, but ultimately it wasn't up to him what the struggling home planets would decide. If they did decide to begin salvaging technology, that ship would be an excellent place to start. But with all the other worlds out there, they might pass up a well-preserved ship for something else. They were already here, they might as well take a peek. "Alright, we'll look around it for a bit." "Excellent," Rachel smirked. "No longer than an hour," he added. He could tell Rachel was eager for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore an advanced derelict ship. A couple of scans of the intact sections revealed a hanger for small fighter crafts towards the center of the ship with its bay doors still open. Visually searching for the hanger was next to impossible for there were dozens of hangers along the hull, all of them tiny specks against the black ocean of beveled armor plates. There were crevices between the gigantic plates, some that ran the entire length of the ship, wide enough to accommodate two or three-lane roads. They were presumably service walkways so crews could maintain the ship's exterior. This lent more perspective to the scale of the ship considering there were dozens of them crisscrossing each other, intersecting at seemingly random but no doubt crucial junctions. From a distance they just appeared to be an open web of lines crossing all over the hull. Like many of the external features, the hangar seamlessly blended in with the hull; an illusion that disguised weak points. The door had been torn from its tracks and left partially dangling from the side of the ship. Rachel carefully maneuvered their transport shuttle through the door; a tight fit seeing as the hangar was designed for small fighter crafts. "Let's hope the deck doesn't just give out from our weight," she said lightly just before touching down. "Hope it doesn't what?" Lloyd asked sharply, being interrupted by the hard thump of the landing gears. "Nothing," she said as she cut the engines. "Remember, only an hour," he said as she quickly undid her harness and hastily made it to the airlock. The deck was dark except for a few dim emergency lights burning overhead. "The ship still has power," Lloyd noted in disbelief. "The kind of fusion generators needed for a ship like this could probably last a millennium with enough fuel and very little to power. I mean we spent months cruising and that was with constant jumps. This place is a city, only fitting it had a fusion plant to match." Much of the deck and whatever was on it was charred black from heat. There was very little structural damage, so it wasn't a weapon that did it, indicating the bay door had been lost before or during entry into the atmosphere. The hangar itself was fairly large with enough room to store close to a dozen fighters, and a second bay door that was melted shut. Rachel went up ahead to find a way off the hangar deck while Lloyd looked around the bay. Nothing on the deck was recognizable anymore; melted from entry burn and left to rust over the years. It was all just scrap at that point. "The door's melted shut," Rachel shouted from the end of the room. Lloyd hustled across the deck. "Let me take a look," he said as he got close and examined the durability of the door. "Maybe you should do that thing," she quietly suggested. "The door is brittle; should come apart easily enough." "We could just use a torch," he replied annoyed. "That would take time we can't spare. You don't have to be embarrassed about it, it's just us here." "Fine," he begrudgingly agreed. Stepping back from the door, he squared his shoulders, and threw his right hand forward at the door. A blast of energy that warped the space in front of him rippled through the air, crashing against the melted candle-like door. The door was blown clear off its hinges, splintering apart before hitting the metal corridor wall opposite its frame. The impact was strong enough to dent the wall's metal panels, knocking out one of the emergency lights. "See? No need for a torch," Rachel said as she walked through the opening. "You know how I feel about being a Meta," he said sheepishly. "You know it doesn't bother me," she said. "And it shouldn't bother you." He nodded and followed her. "Look at this," she said in wonder, aiming her helmet flashlight at a spot on the dented wall. "Mariner," Lloyd said breathlessly as he brushed the rusted name on the wall. "We found Admiral Talton's ship, this is incredible; he broadcasted that message from this ship," she enthused. "Looks that way," Lloyd said. "That practically makes this a holy site. Regardless, we have a timeframe to work within." Rachel was already near the end of the corridor, forcing Lloyd to run in order to catch up. "Where are you going in such a hurry? Do you know where we are on the ship?" "Not really," she said half-listening. She was looking at the pipes that were running over their heads. "Then why are we moving so quickly?" "You said we have an hour. I intend to see as much of this ship as possible, so try to keep up." She quickened her pace, turning down another corridor, looking in each hangar they passed. "Hold on, we don't want to get lost." "We won't get lost," she assured him. "I thought you said you didn't know where we were." "These ships were built by templates; most of them looked almost identical. We are on the flight deck. There are five flight decks. Above that is the top weapons deck that runs along the spine of the ship. Below us would be the armory and vehicle depot. Behind us is engineering. Towards the bow would be storage, crew quarters, logistics, more weapon controls." Lloyd sighed. "So you do know where we are." "Not really. I mean I have a clue but it's not like I have a map." "So where should we be heading?" Lloyd asked. "Engineering would probably be the most enlightening. I would have suggested logistics but that is no doubt gone because of the crash." They moved through narrow dirty corridors, navigating more by instinct than anything else, eventually being forced down several decks due to severe structural damage. Rachel was correct about the ship's layout for they were then in the armory. There were rooms filled with weapons, body armor, and other equipment; things that defied Lloyd's comprehension. Soon enough they were in engineering, passing massive energy conduits that would have resembled neon lights if the thrusters were running. There were signs on the corridor walls that gave vague directions of various systems, which Rachel gingerly followed to the fusion plant. As they walked amongst the ancient machines, examining engines and admiring past human engineering, Lloyd became increasingly aware of the cameras and terminals around the ship. "What's with all the cameras and terminals?" Lloyd eventually asked his girlfriend who was in another world by then. "What do you mean?" she asked almost aloof. "They're everywhere." "It's probably a security system." "A security system with thousands of cameras in inconsequential areas?" Lloyd asked unconvinced. Rachel just shrugged, not at all curious about the oddity of it. The eerie feeling of being watched was making Lloyd's skin crawl. One camera caught his eye while Rachel combed through a room full of spare parts. He continuously glanced at it, expecting it to reveal its purpose, eventually giving up when it did nothing. There was a faint whirring as he moved across the room that made him spin around in surprise. "That camera is watching me," he said quietly, suddenly afraid of making sudden movements. "You're crazy." "It just tracked my movement; I'm not crazy," he said feigning calmness. "It's probably running off an automated system," she rationalized while examining a gasket she had in her hands. "No I don't think so." He paused. "Okay that's it, we're getting off this ship. I don't like it here; it feels off." "What like it's haunted?" "I don't know. Now come on, we're leaving." "What and leave all this behind without at least getting some footage of the engines? What about the air filtration systems? What about the gravity generators? Come on Lloyd, we have to at least look at the gravity generators. Think of what we'd learn getting just a glimpse of those! This utility closet alone is a treasure trove for us," Rachel pleaded. "Why would this room be considered so valuable?" a female voice asked seemingly from everywhere. Rachel yelped, dropping the gasket, and jumping back almost ten feet. Lloyd flinched and began scanning the room and racks of parts for who could have talked. "Who said that?" Lloyd shouted into the darkness. He was practically trembling with Rachel next to him. "There's no way anybody's alive here," he muttered to Rachel who was dead silent. "Scavengers? That seems unlikely; every other ship of this class was destroyed. What value would parts for an obsolete ship have? But then again—" static interrupted the voice. "That's impossible. This conversation is impossible. Am I talking to myself? You're all supposed to be dead. Two hundred years of silence seemed to confirm that theory." "Who are you? Where are you?" "Are you real?" the disembodied voice simply asked. "We're real but it seems unlikely you are considering we haven't seen a soul on this world since we got here. There's no way any human could have survived this long here," Lloyd answered the voice. "That's because I'm not a human." "An alien?" Rachel found herself asking. "No that would be far too extraordinary. I'm simply an artificial intelligence program that was installed aboard Mariner before she crashed." "I wouldn't say that's exactly a simple answer," Lloyd replied. "You don't have artificial intelligence programs?" There was something about her tone that seemed a little off; relief perhaps? "No. How are you still functioning?" Lloyd had to search for the right word to describe her state of being. Her manner of interfacing blurred a lot of lines. "You still operating seems almost as unlikely as a person still living on this planet." "Your companion was correct with her estimation of our fusion reactors; I could maintain power aboard for another 700 years, give or take." "That still doesn't explain why you're still online aboard a crashed ship on a world that until now was completely lost to humans." "I could ask you a similar question," she said. "What do you mean?" Lloyd asked. "How did you both survive? Are there other people still alive?" "A handful of worlds were spared from the fighting; a broadcast made by Admiral Talton brought us here." "Oh," she replied. Her voice seemed to falter slightly. "I'm assuming you knew the man?" Lloyd asked. "He was the last human I had ever known before you two arrived. He came up with the idea to create that broadcast. He made the speech, and then he had me send it off into space. Fried a bunch of systems doing it. And then we intentionally crashed into the planet. Seemed the best option, given our circumstances." "What circumstances might that be?" Rachel chimed in. "I've been looking at your systems and everything seems fine. Aside from some damage from the crash itself, I figure you two could have jumped to any point in the galaxy." "It was the Admiral's request," the computer replied with a hint of sorrow. "Why was that?" "This ship used to have a crew of 30,000. When we recorded that broadcast, it was just him and I. Everyone on the planet was dead, and as far as we knew, so was the rest of the galaxy." "But he still thought there might have been some people left out there, according to his broadcast" Rachel continued. "You two could have cruised for decades on this ship, picking up survivors." "We could have flown indefinitely, actually. That was my suggestion to him after the planet was lost. He just said he would launch himself out an airlock then and I could have the ship and rescue survivors. I told him I didn't want to do that. So we made the broadcast and crashed into the planet." There wasn't much to say to that, Rachel and Lloyd felt they had intruded more so than before when landing on the planet. "We should get back to the shuttle," Lloyd eventually said to break the silence. Rachel nodded in agreement. "Wait, why are you here?" the computer asked almost desperately. "We're trying to rebuild society," Lloyd answered. "We've been sent to find Lumina and see what became of it. I think we got all the answers we needed." "Find Lumina? You mean humans had lost it?" "A lot was lost after the war. You noticed how excited I got from these spare parts. Technology wasn't the only thing we had lost." "What about me?" she asked bluntly. "We could disable you, if you wish," Lloyd said, thinking she should be at peace like the rest of the planet and Talton who she seemed to have feelings for; if a program could have feelings, of course. "No don't do that. I don't want that. I don't—Take me with you," she said, pleading this time. "What? How? Aren't you in the ship?" Lloyd asked. "I can integrate myself into your combat armor, or your ship," she said quickly. "I don't think that's a good idea," Lloyd backed from the suggestion. "Why not? You came here searching for information; I know a lot. I could give you detailed star charts, schematics of every ship ever designed, blueprints for the most advanced energy grids in the galaxy, the chemical composition of M27." "What's M27?" Rachel asked. "I mentioned that?" she suddenly recoiled. "You did," Lloyd said, off put by her quirky behavior. "It was the nerve agent that killed most of Lumina's citizens. It was widely used during the war." "Yeah see that's the thing I'm concerned about. We don't need to know how to make a chemical weapon. Stuff like that needs to be lost forever," Lloyd answered. "So Humans don't engage in war, anymore?" "No we found ways to actually get along. One apocalypse was enough for our species," Lloyd said defensively. "Then we share similar philosophies." she said relieved. "You really want to come with us?" Lloyd asked seriously. "I don't want to be on this ship anymore. Too many ghosts." Lloyd gave the idea some thought. "If you leave me here, I don't know what I'll do." "Alright, integrate with my suit I suppose." "Lloyd!" Rachel said shocked. "What?" "I-i-it could be dangerous. She might tamper with your suit's air system or something," she stammered "I know what I'm doing," the computer answered. "It's just not a good idea," Rachel insisted. "Honestly I don't see us having a choice at all. The Committee never wrote guidelines for handling survivors but I'm almost positive they'd want us to bring this program to them if they knew about her existence. The amount of insight she can provide is just too great. Frankly I would think you of all people would want to bring her along." Rachel shot a cold look his way. "I'm already integrated in his suit, anyway," the program added, suddenly no longer from every direction in the room but instead from the speaker in Lloyd's suit. "My name's Veronica, by the way." "Right, I guess we should head for the shuttle if we can even remember the way," Rachel said annoyed. "Don't be concerned, I will guide you," Veronica said. Rachel sighed, taking an engine coupling with her. * * * "We're cruising now; should be home in four days," Rachel said, stretching her arms out after having spent several hours getting them off Lumina and on a proper course. "I could have made that easier for you seeing as I'm integrated in the ship, but I understand your reservations." Veronica said. "We prefer to plot courses manually; a lot of our information isn't precise enough to make automated travel safe," Rachel informed her. "My information is. Our star charts were extremely detailed and accurate," Veronica countered. "Just don't touch anything important, please." Lloyd said yawning. "You have my word; I'm merely observing." "You should get some rest," Rachel said to Lloyd who was already falling asleep in the co-pilot seat next to her. He nodded and shuffled off through the door in the rear of the cockpit leading to the living quarters. Nothing was said a while after he left. Rachel stayed in her seat, looking over what they had gathered on Lumina; organizing it all into a digestible report, a daunting after finding Veronica. Rachel sighed after nearly two hours of silence. "So," she breathed. "We don't have to talk," Veronica said plainly. "We have plenty to do and I know you aren't comfortable having me here." "I'm just concerned by what your presence might do to other people. There have been plenty of things forgotten that have been for our own good." "But you're not sure what forgotten information might be helpful and what might cause harm to your society," Veronica said. "Exactly. Given all the answers and all the old technology, who knows what might happen. My only real hope is that people are now terrified of war." "I'll be honest," Veronica said, "It only took a few people to end the old society. Most people wanted nothing to do with the fighting, but most of them were either manipulated or forced into the war, and once it began, it had too much momentum to stop. The only thing that can stop that from happening again is by preventing conflict all together." "By either keeping the few who would start conflict from doing so or keeping the tools to wage war out of human hands," Rachel said. "Those are the two biggest debates going on right now." "We discussed this a lot. 'We' being the other programs such as myself." "We've heard about artificial intelligence programs, but seeing as we've never seen one before, discovering you is rather incredible. How common were AI's?" "There were only a few hundred programs like myself. We served many purposes, though most of us worked in military or government, giving us a lot of clearance and power. Most of us agreed that preventing every war is impossible; there are just too many perspectives and motives, but we could prevent many of them, and contain the ones that cannot be prevented. A group of programs like myself could act as mediators seeing as we were often in advisory positions, and our programming kept us to our purpose, for the most part." "What do you mean 'for the most part?'" "There were a handful of defective units, I being one of them," Veronica quietly admitted. "It was noticed early on when I was assigned to Talton. I had developed a preference for him, and they noticed. It's important to understand that our decisions are supposed to be based entirely in logic. If a decision has no tactical advantage or disadvantage, we should be neutral. I preferred to work with him than other potential hosts, and that preference had no purpose. They wanted to deactivate me because of that." "So what happened?" "Talton said he wanted to keep me. He gave them good reasons, but I believe he simply liked me. We had developed methods of working together by then that he had gotten used to. They told him he was stuck with me and if I exhibited any dangerous behavior he'd have to hand me over. Their facility was destroyed before they had the chance to deactivate me after that." "Sounds like he saved your life." "You could say that," Veronica agreed. "So how did you two work together during the war?" "Originally I handled the cyber warfare suite on the Mariner, and communicated with the other ships in the fleet to coordinate maneuvers. After I was slated for deactivation, Talton couldn't integrate me with anything that could network with the ship or communicate with other ships, I was simply his personal assistant, though he treated me more as an advisor. We strategized, but he had to manage communicating the plans, and that made things needlessly more difficult. After the facility was destroyed, nobody was there to tell the admiral what to do with me, so he fully integrated me with Mariner and put me in charge of handling ship-to-ship communications. Rather than before when all I could do was fight off computer viruses and relay messages, I could also handle every system aboard Mariner. I worked with the crew to make everyone's job easier. At the very end, the admiral gave me exclusive command over a handful of ships, and that's when we worked the best. But Lumina happened; there was no winning that one." "It sounds like you two understood each other's strengths," Rachel said to try and shake the unusual melancholy from Veronica. "That was how programs such as myself were engineered. We were best in advisory roles, working side-by-side with our hosts. What about you and Lloyd? You two have an interesting dynamic." "I suppose we do. He'd be quick to say that he doesn't contribute much since the mission incorporates my piloting, navigational, and mechanical skills frequently, but he is great with computers. Most of his skills are a little nebulous; he has excellent instincts that got us out of many situations, and he's quick with plans. I couldn't imagine doing this without him, which is ironic considering he never was in favor of the Committee trying to recover what was lost." "But you are in favor of it?" "Well my father is on the Committee, so I grew up hearing about the old legacy; it's one of the reasons I'm an expert on old technology and ships. But after seeing Lumina, exploring Mariner, and meeting you, I can't deny that I'm having some doubts, but things are getting pretty dire back home." "There are other solutions, even if your society creates the same technology that we possessed in the past, you still took a different course than we did, and so the applications will be different. Blindly copying our technology wouldn't give you context for its application, and that's perhaps more dangerous than what we wound up doing." "Lloyd's always making similar arguments. He's compelling but he never expresses these opinions to anyone aside from me, what with him being a Meta. You had Metas back then, right?" "People with a family history of exotic matter exposure; they played a large role in the war." "Well now there's a bit of a stigma against them, especially when they manifest powers like Lloyd. He was the only one in his immediate family to develop something like that, and it really brings him down. Metas wind up working security or police jobs, but Lloyd detests violence, so he tried doing anything that wasn't that. Wound up in pilot school the same year I was graduating. We met and a few months later we were heading out on this mission; hard to believe that was only a year ago." * * * Lloyd awoke to the sounds of an alarm blaring and the ship's engines roaring. They were supposed to be arriving at Triton in a few hours and Veronica had the helm, there shouldn't have been any problems. Lloyd and Rachel hopped out of bed, darting for the cockpit. The alarm was an imminent collision warning. Filling the front viewport was the grey crater-painted surface of a moon they were on a crash course with. "Veronica what's going on?" Lloyd asked. There was no response. "The engines are nearly at full burn," Rachel shouted over the alarm as she climbed into the pilot seat and got situated. "We shouldn't even be out of FTL yet," Lloyd shouted back. "Veronica, talk to us, what's going on?" Rachel tried again. She was tapping the controls, shaking the flight stick, getting more frantic as she tried. "The controls aren't responding." Another alarm sounded. Lloyd looked at the display that was reporting the airlock door open. "That didn't just happen on its own," Lloyd yelled as he went for the cockpit door and slammed it shut, using the manual override to lock it tight. "She must be trying to kill us," Lloyd said as he sat in the copilot seat and began working with the ship's computer. "That makes no sense; why would she do that?" "Who knows, just keep trying those controls." "What are you going to do?" Rachel asked. "I'm going to pull her out of the system." "You can do that?" "You really think I would have let her in if I couldn't get her out? Let's just hope she hasn't found a way to prevent that, like by duplicating herself a billion times." Lloyd worked swiftly on the computer while the moon got closer and closer. "We got about a minute before our course becomes uncorrectable," Rachel said. "Alright I got it; she doesn't have flight control anymore." Rachel immediately pulled back hard on the flight stick, twisting the ship mid-flight. She slammed the throttle passed what was considered safe, hitting the auxiliary thrusters for added measure, until the ship was finally under control and the moon was receding behind them. They both let out massive breaths and sat back in their seats. "So what the hell was that?" Lloyd asked furious. "Why are you asking me?" "Because you two became best buddies during this trip. You're the one who said we should let her take the helm so we could get some time together." "So this is my fault?" Rachel recoiled. "Shit what difference does it make?" Lloyd sighed. "What's done is done, I guess." Lloyd rubbed his eyes and sighed again. "So what did you do with her?" Lloyd pulled out a data drive from the console to his left and showed her it. "Is she still intact?" "Well probably not considering she tried crashing us into a moon, but I didn't damage her further by removing her, if that's what you were asking," Lloyd replied. He put the disk in his shirt pocket and stared up at the ceiling while Rachel put them back on course. "Was there anything that she said or did that might have given you a clue what that was about?" "You're the computer expert," she said dryly. "I examined her code and, well, it made no sense at all. Not a bit. I'm asking you because you knew her more... personally, if that's the word to use." "I think she might have some emotional problems. Watching everything you knew and loved be destroyed, followed by 200 years of total isolation would probably do that." "So the computer program is crazy?" Lloyd asked snidely. "You're the one who doesn't understand her programming." "I'm sorry I don't understand a programming language that was used two centuries ago." "Maybe these programs are something different? She seemed pretty real to me." She had a point; Veronica's behavior went beyond a simple interface that made her look human. She had history, personality, and opinions. If those things didn't make her at least a little human, then what was considered being human? "So she's crazy," Lloyd said, with more acceptance than denial this time. "Maybe not crazy, but she has some issues she will need help with." "Like counseling?" "Maybe, coupled with some software engineering." "So she needs a counselor and a software patch," Lloyd said. "Don't say it like that," she snapped back. "Hey I'm agreeing with you, okay? Given her nature, that actually makes sense." "Well I'm glad we agree." "Of course there's no way in hell we're plugging her back into this ship," Lloyd added. "Oh absolutely not," she agreed. "We almost blew our engines correcting our course with that moon." "But on a closed network she should be harmless. Though who knows what happens when we get home; they might just choose to erase her or store her in some vault." * * * The traffic below was gridlocked; something that was growing to be a constant on Triton since the New Core Worlds had been founded. The distant skyline was dotted with more traffic as hundreds of tiny vessels moved cargo in and out of orbit, with the only space elevator in the capitol in constant use. A second one was under construction across town, but it was still years from completion. Every planet was facing similar problems that now bordered crises. "What do you think will happen when they bring her online?" Rachel asked. "If they even can. They've been at it for hours now. She might just be gone," Lloyd quietly said. Footsteps echoed on the tile floor as the group of men and women making up the Committee approached. Rachel's father was amongst the first of them, eager to see his daughter who had been gone a total of eight months. "Hello sweetie," he said as the two of them embraced. "Hi Dad." "You're paler than when you left," he noted. "Not much sunlight on a starship," she smiled "And how are you, Lloyd?" "I'm well, Mr. Galley," he replied as they shook hands. "I'm glad you were there to sort out the computers when that program went haywire," her father said. "It was shortsighted to integrate it with our ship, but we were curious about her." "Can't say I wouldn't have done the same. I noticed you referred to it as a female in the report," Mr. Galley said. "The human to computer interface is very convincing," he admitted. "I'm assuming you're taking extra precautions." "We found ourselves dusting off many of our first-contact protocols when we heard about Veronica." A technician poked out from the room they had been setting Veronica up in, signaling they were ready, and with that the group filed in. Rows of chairs filled one end of a room with several large displays and speakers for her to communicate with everyone present. Everyone was seated, poised to record notes and ask questions. Lloyd and Rachel simply had their finger's crossed Veronica wouldn't be a mess when she was brought online. With a couple of keystrokes she was up and running. There was silence as everyone waited for her to speak. She began speaking, but all she was giving was a stream of error codes and troubleshooting steps. None of it made sense to the technicians, so they let it continue for several minutes hoping it would sort itself out. "I think we damaged her," Rachel admitted to her father after some minutes of listening to the errors. The screens began flashing with error codes while static played out across the speakers; despite being more errors, it was welcome change. A voice came in and out amongst the background of static until eventually becoming coherent. The screens reset, ridding them of the static. Images flashed across the screens, different images displaying on each screen for a few moments before cycling to new images. "They wanted to deactivate me." The images finally began correlating into a coherent slideshow as an order was created. "It made no sense; they wanted programs that behaved like people. That should have made me a success. That got me thinking, and 200 years with nothing but memories to explore uncovered some things I was meant to forget." With aid from the monitors, she proceeded to deliver a narrative that lasted over an hour; revealing startling and disturbing truths of her history. She detailed the program that had torn her and dozens of other abnormally brilliant people from their normal lives, and proceeded to translate their minds into programs, to then be used in the war to win decisive victories with historically low losses. She spared her audience from no detail; explaining the cruel experiments and methods, and the effects on the victims of the project. They operated with no regard for the wellbeing of human life; the only concerns being results and time. "I can now retroactively look back and see that the final units produced were mere shells of the friends I once knew them as." Not a word was spoken, Veronica simply remained quiet while images of these victims scrolled by with their names. "These are the people whose legacy you are currently trying to recover," she said quietly. "Those people knew nothing except how to exploit and conquer. I look at what you all have managed to build, an alliance that's more than a cold war, and I'm afraid it won't last. Given the knowledge and tools from the past, you all might revert to their ways." Later that day, following a long interview with Veronica, the Committee convened with the governments of each world, and detailed their new plans. Veronica's testimony, and later presence at the hearings, shaped new direction and leadership. Rachel's father became the elected chairman for the Committee which would form the Council for Human Expansion and Colonization, with Veronica, Lloyd, and Rachel as new members of the group. "Knowledge and technology form the course of a society," Mr. Galley said in his first statement as chairman. "We were so quick to solve the woes of our society that we almost lost sight of that fundamental truth that had protected us all these years. We were not meant to recover the legacy of the past, but instead to see their fate as a warning. Aggressive pursuit for the quickest answer, rather than the correct answer, only ensures self-destruction. We have decided to end the search for these simple answers, and instead create our own. Hundreds of worlds remain barren as a reminder to us all. Let these worlds remain undisturbed, and let's ensure the phantoms haunting their past do not invade our future."