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What Major Tom Sees [IC, Solo]

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8,933,750,000 Miles from Sol

March 11th, 2013


Going at 93,000,000 miles per second wasn't as frightening as it sounded, as long as you take care not to think about it. 


There was no way Kyle Steward was going that fast now, however. They'd decelerated the second Pluto had come into view; Maria had tried to bring up to speed on how it wasn't exactly a planet anymore, and Kyle had reminded her that he'd at least been around for that. They were going... somewhere around 2c at this point. Fast enough that they would make it back to Earth by the time the day was out, but slow enough that they could at least take in the sights. 


And they were good sights for Kyle. Even if he'd never seen them up close before, it was... some kind of familiar. He'd spent so long in the Cloud, a place where every sun, every planet, every star system had been uncharted territory for him at first. And now, he was back amongst the planets he had grown up with. First Pluto, even if technically it wasn't a planet anymore. Then Neptune, then Uranus, and now...


They'd been zooming between the moons of Saturn, adjusting for orbital rotation. Once upon a time, he could have named them all, but that was childhood fancy - it hadn't stuck around. But still, they were getting close enough to buzz the rings. Maria sent the order over the comms system, and Kyle pulled up to a halt. Ice shimmered out before him in an endless curtain, with the occasional bit of rock amidst the cloud. In the distance, he could see the roiling surface of the gaseous planet. 


"Really knocks you down, doesn't it?"


Kyle looked over to Maria; the visor was drawn tight, but there was a sense of wonder in her voice. "Yeah," he said. "It really does. When was your first time seeing it?"


"When I came out to Citadel," she said. "Mind you, I didn't have much time for sightseeing - I was being dragged by my bootheels across half the galaxy at speeds I really don't want to think about. But I saw it blur by, and some part of me said, 'I have to stop and see that next time.'" She chuckled. "Just thought you'd like to have the same experience. I mean, I know you want to get home, but..."


Kyle reached out for the glistening expanse. He ran his armored hand through the distant detritus; there was no way to feel the chill through the metal (which was a good thing, given it was surrounded by vacuum), but he juggled the ice about in his palm. He flicked his wrist, and the particles danced in the void before trailing back thanks to the pull of gravity. 


"I just touched a piece of Saturn," he said. "I think I can take a little time."

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They'd mostly skipped past Jupiter, though they'd taken time to pause over the Great Red Spot. Now they were on their way towards Mars. The red planet loomed great beneath them; they'd decided to go on tour in geosynchronous orbit, starting at Olympus Mons and working their way counterclockwise. 


"Holy crap," said Kyle, "there really is a smiley face on Mars."




"Sorry, something I read in a book when I was younger."


"Must've been a weird book." They drifted to silence as they darted over the Valles Marineris, their eyes turned towards the vast gulf it cut in the surface. 


"Mind if I ask a question?"




"How quickly did you get used to... all of this?"


Maria paused. And then she started laughing. "On some level, I don't think I'll entirely get used to this. I mean, look at that. That is part of my beat. How many officers can say that? Trust me, you've got a lot more experience with this kind of thing than I do."


"Yeah, but you've got more experience with the law thing than I do. I was... law-for-hire. At best." 


"At least you didn't mistake your drill instructor for a Tholian."


"A Thol --" Somewhere under his helm, Kyle was grinning. "Not just a geek, an old school geek." 


"So I grew up with Shatner and company. Screw me. But you knew this territory long before you picked up the armor. Come at it from my angle - all I know about aliens are that they're out there and they occasionally like to visit Earth, sometimes to do horrible things to cows. Then I find out my fellow cops aren't reporting to the capos, but the Meta-Mind, and it's all one big roller-coaster ride until I'm taking the oath before Mentor. At least you had time to breathe."


"Yeah. Maybe somewhere in there." 

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The moon rested beneath them now, cold and luminous. Earth had been a mere spark in the distance when they were flying over Mars. But now it rested beneath them, split between light and shadow. 


"Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?"


"Nothing I feel comfortable discussing with my CO." It was all Kyle felt like saying. On the coldest nights in the Cloud... on his first night on the Pathforger, looking out at strange stars... he'd dreamed of this. Of home. And here it was. Waiting. "Y'know, I always wanted to see where Armstrong planted the flag, but... I think that can wait. Let's go."


"I've just got to check in with the League. Make sure we weren't taken over by mutant kangaroos or something while I was --" Maria paused, looking up to the void. "That's odd."




"Flip open your radio band."


Kyle did as she suggested, sending the thought-command through the armor's responsive protocols to open up the radio. He juggled the band about until he found what Maria was talking about - broadcasting at around 290 GHz, near the frequency where "radio" crossed over into "microwaves," was a chant. It took the radio some time until Kyle could hash it together into something understandable, and a few seconds longer for the armor's language processers to take over. 


"Warm us, shelter us, keep us on the path... warm us, shelter us, keep us on the path..."


"Could be an artifact. Something from an old broadcast..."


"Point of origin's somewhere in lunar orbit... and it sounds like it's been cycling for a while." Maria looked up, scanning the skies for some sort of ship. "That sound familiar to you?"


Kyle didn't recognize what the words meant, but the cadence and repetition were certainly familiar. "Prayer." 

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They found the craft relatively quickly. It was hanging in low-lunar orbit, throwing up a basic cloaking pattern - the only real way to detect it was by seeing how the light from distant stars distorted as it passed through the cloak. "Three reasons why a craft would be hovering in low orbit while cloaked," Maria said. "It's been damaged and needs to hide from its pursuers while repairing, it's on observation duty, or --"


" -- possible ambush." Kyle opened his radio band to broadcast on the same frequency as the strange hymnal. "This is Star Knight Kyle Steward, responding to your signal. Are you in distress? Is your ship in need of repair or evacuation?"


The hymnal went on, not flagging once. It could have been a recording, but there were subtle changes in the tone that indicated it wasn't the same phrase on repeat. "I knew that was a bit stiff, but..."


"They may not be in any condition to respond," Maria said. She put her hand to the side of the ship - the cloak held, and she began to run her hands over the hull. Kyle quickly got where she was going, and joined in the search. "No breach or distress on my side. Yours?"


"Nothing. Ship's cloaked, no obvious damage, no response - hostile or otherwise - from the inhabitants, and a message that could be taken as a distress call. What does that add up to?"


Maria pressed her hand against the side of the craft, towards a pad she'd felt out. The pad clicked and whirred, opening to reveal an airlock. "Exigent circumstances." 

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The airlock yielded eventually, and the void rushed in, bringing Maria and Kyle with it. A few seconds later, the door sealed behind them as the airlock began to repressurize; once everything was clear, another door opened, leading to the rest of the ship. 


"No alarms," Kyle said. "That's either a good sign or a really bad one."


"Let's go with 'good' for now," said Maria. They'd come out onto an antechamber, one that looked like it had seen better days. The structure for the place was mainly beaten-up paneling and the occasional exposed bit of steel; it reminded Kyle of some of the mining ships he'd hitched rides on (and a few that he'd had to clean up with the other Runabouts - apparently they had a nasty habit of landing on planets with parasitic species during mating season...). The ship was remarkably clean, however - no effluvia, no blood, absolutely no signs of life. Which was somehow worse. 


"You ever see a ship this clean?" asked Maria.


"Show room models, sometimes. And never really this clean." He paused as the hallway curved. "I don't think this ever came with the factory model, though..."


The room was octagonal, with little recesses cut into the walls. Inside each recess was a cabinet, and in four of the cabinets were individuals. Two were humanoid - one muscular and hairless, the other lean and bony - one was chitinous and more like an upright pillbug, and the last one was practically a jellyfish. They all looked like they were in cryostasis for long term travel - if not for the fact that their positioning would've made that awkward. They were all hung up, suspended from the major limbs like marionettes, with probes attached to their heads (or fitting substitutes). In the center of the room lay not a control panel, but something like an unlit brazier. 


"Man, what kind of party were they throwing in here?"

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Maria was already inspecting a computer panel over by the chambers, trying to decipher the writing. "Suit can't even translate this stuff," she said. "They must've been from way out of town if the archives aren't pulling anything up."


Kyle kept his eyes locked on the individuals in stasis. Maria and he had been on the ship for about five minutes now, and there was still no sign of movement, no apparent process that was waking them. "Think we should call the big boss?" he said. 


"Well, I've never seen guys like this, you've never seen guys like this, we've never seen a ship like this, and we have no idea why it's hanging out here like it broke an axle. We could do worse than see if this is up Mentor's alley."


Kyle nodded, and clicked open the connection. Within the earpiece of Kyle's uniform, there was a diamond molecule that had, at one point, interacted with another molecule held in the central database of Citadel. The two molecules were quantum entangled; any adjustment to one would cause a similar adjustment to the other, no matter how far the distance. It made communication over a billion miles immensely easy. 


"Star Knight Kyle Steward. You are recognized. What is it you seek?"


The voice still made Kyle nervous. Even though Mentor's parameters had likely adjusted it to sound like everyone's friendly grandpa, it still made him feel like he was being called into the principal's office. "We've got a cloaked ship in orbit around Earth's moon," he said. "No structural damage, no signs of quarantine or seizure. Four crew, all in stasis - no recognized species, no common language. Uploading you a scan of what appears to be cryo storage."


Kyle scanned the room, allowing the connection to carry the visual back to Mentor's processors. There was silence for a few seconds, perhaps a bit too long for one of the most advanced AIs in the universe. 


"Steward. Take Knight Montoya and evacuate. Now."


Yeah, there was no way that was good. "What are we looking at, Mentor?"


"Memetic hazard alpha. Steward, you must --"


White flame erupted in the center of the room, and as it did, Mentor's signal, in a practical impossibility, fell away in a cloud of static. The glass panels on the stasis chambers began to withdraw, and the cables keeping the individuals suspended broke and fell away. 


"What did he say?"


"These guys? Not quite Boy Scouts."


Energy crackled up and down Maria's gauntlet, coalescing in the form of a sword. "And here I was just hoping for a distress call."


"Well, that'd just make it too easy." The metal around Kyle's right wrist shifted and expanded, compiling to form a blaster that slipped easily into his palm. "'Memetic hazard alpha.' That's code for mind screw tactics, right?"


"Great. You feel anyone poking at your head, just hit 'em 'til they can't think straight." 

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The two humanoids were the first to rouse. They were out of their bonds, stumbling across the floor of the chamber, still in a languid state from cold sleep.  Kyle held his fire - while he was up to get a jump on an enemy, he still wasn't sure what he was facing, and shooting a man while he was half-asleep on his feet just didn't seem sporting. But then the room flashed with blinding light, and when it cleared, the humanoids were standing upright again. Their arms glowed white, a leather band around their wrists burning with a luminous brand.


"Greetings," said Maria "I'm with the Star Knights. We heard your distress call, and --"


One of them barked a word, and a flash of light cut across the room, burning a mark into the far wall. 


"Okay, I'd say that's clear intent to harm. Light 'em up!"


Maria closed with the targets, her sword flashing brightly. She took the whole "knight" aspect of their duty seriously, and her regalia accompanied that. It didn't hurt that what the sword traded for range, it made up for in damage and backing the suit's functions - much better to form a complete circuit instead of something that was venting energy. Kyle, however, had gotten too used to high-intensity firefights. He was willing to give up a little versatility for the sheer potential of not getting shot point blank. 


The brands were more than just weapons, though. They gave the bearers a sheen that caused Maria's blade to bounce off of them more often than it hit home. Kyle, likewise, was having trouble piercing their armor with his blasts - sometimes the pulses were just drunk up by the light. That flare in the middle of the room didn't help, regularly beating and flashing and feeling like it was tearing into Kyle's head through his eyes. What kind of hardware was this? And why was it screwing with him so much? 


A grunt knocked him out of his daze. Maria's sword managed to strike home, sending an incapacitating pulse through one of her targets. But by the time the target hit the floor, the other two occupants had fully roused - and their brands were glowing just as brightly. 


"So. Thoughts?"


"Conditional retreat. Now."


Maria and Kyle raced out of the stasis room. As they crossed the threshold, the ship lurched violently. "The hell was that?" she asked.


"Damnit. We're moving. I've felt this before - some ships with low-grade FTL drives need a bunch of push to bring their mass down to zero. The really bad ones feel like an earthquake." Kyle paused. "Which means if we tried to get off now, we'd be dropping out of relativity speeds into real space. It'd be like diving into a room-sized blender."


"Great. Which means we've got to get this thing to stop moving."


"I may know something about that..."

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It took a lot of running and the occasional firefight, but eventually, they found the main bridge. There was a clear plate that looked out onto the universe, but all Kyle could see through it was endless ribbons of blue light that he really didn't want to think too hard about. He worked his way over to the main controls, desperately pouring over the equipment. 


"Anything you recognize?" asked Maria.


"This could be the brake," said Kyle, "or it could control the espresso machine. Never seen a layout like this before. And none of it is labeled. Who the hell do they have crewing this thing, savants?"


The sound of footsteps echoed up the hall, growing louder by the second. "Maybe we can ask them personally. I've seen ships where a loss of primary control means everything starts powering down. You think -- ?"


Kyle opened fire before she could finish the sentence, targeting what he presumed was the main control bank. It caved in quickly, reduced to slagged metal, but still the ship proceeded on. "Apparently this isn't one of them," he said. "There's got to be a second set of controls somewhere. Engine room's a solid bet - and if all else fails, I can disable the engine, kill the fields, and get us off this wreck." 


"Where do you think it'd be?" 


"Single story craft, built for speed and lack of bulk... aft. Meaning back through there."


Maria looked down the hall. "Get there," she said. "I'll hold them off."


"Look, we can --"


"I've gone up against Grue, Lor, several of the Khanate's best warriors, and things I don't even wanna think about. No offense to your combat experience, but you at least know more about how these things move. I think you can handle it. Now go!"


She tore out first, taking off to the right; soon after, the sound of advancing footsteps cut off in exchange for the rapport of conflict. Kyle, meanwhile, broke left at top speed, rushing towards the rear of the ship. Hope you know what you're doing, Maria. Hell. Hope I know what I'm doing...

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Kyle tried to drive the din he'd left behind out of his head as he raced towards the back of the spacecraft. Maria knew what she was doing - at least, he hoped she did. She'd been in worse situations - hadn't she? He shook his head. It wasn't going to do either of them any good if he got ambushed because he was doubting himself. He tore through the ship, trying to familiarize himself with the strange layout. Here was something that might have been crew quarters... something that was probably the mess... something that might, by some bizarre definition, have been considered a latrine...


Finally, he found the engine room - mainly because it couldn't be mistaken for anything else. The same white flame that had roared through the stasis chamber surged through clear pipes - and, to Kyle's surprise, several unconstrained areas, running straight from one font to another. Even a foot away from the exposed flame, he felt no heat roaring off of what must have been an inferno. He turned his attention towards the nearest computer, trying to find the shutdown function. That was easier said than done; the computer didn't provide an easy-to-use interface so much as a constantly scrolling stream of protocols. His eyes tracked them as they moved, trying to find an open route to exploit. But as he kept watching them, he realized they weren't exactly computer code...


"Tranquility above"... "peace in warmth"... "shelter us and guide us"... I've heard of ships running on prayer before, but...


Kyle studied the computer. This wasn't exactly his area of expertise; he could always try inserting a "create boulder you can't move" line, but that probably wasn't going to work. After a while, however, he realized that the lines about prayer had a certain pattern. It was all about safety. Tranquility. Shelter. Peace. That left him two options... 


After locating the keyboard, he tried option one. "We are at peace." Nothing. "Let the embers glow." Nothing. There was little chance of hacking this thing in a way that would result in a peaceful shutdown. Which left option two...


"Time for some creative desecration."


The pistol roared to life in Kyle's hand, and five rounds of high-intensity plasma tore through the console. The flames of the engine room shut down for one second... and then roared to life once more, burning even brighter than before. And this time, they were burning hot. Kyle raced out of the engine room just as the metal around the open fonts began to glow orange. Loud explosions roared through the ship as Kyle raced through the halls. The craft was at least disabled. Now it was a question of whether it would hold together until they could all get out. 

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Kyle raced past the junction bridge, towards where he'd last seen Maria trading blows with the other guys. Where'd he last left her, there was nothing but slagged steel and burn marks on the walls. And there was no further exchange of fire- not that Kyle could hear much else over the explosions in the distance - which was further evidence of things that weren't good. He raced down the hall, gun at the ready, hoping that it wasn't too late. He found what he was looking for in the stasis room - the three crew members who were still standing, banded together before the font. One, the jellyfish, was carrying his unconscious comrade over his shoulders. The other humanoid and the pillbug were sharing duties carrying around Maria, who wasn't moving. He prayed she was just out cold and prepared to make his move, when he realized the crew was chanting. A second later, the chant shut off - and so did the explosions running through the ship. A column of white fire erupted from the font - and all three leapt in, taking their friend and Maria with them. 




Kyle raced to the font, ready to jump in and follow them - but before he could reach it, the flame sputtered out utterly, leaving nothing but cold metal. They were gone, and he had no idea where. 


I should have been there. I should have backed her up. I should have --


Before the pity party could start in earnest, Kyle felt the ship start to list and shake. He was finding it hard to stay on his feet, and it felt like the craft was listing downwards. Doing his best to stay aloft, he raced towards the bridge, trying to get an idea of what was happening. Gone were the trailing ribbons of blue; they were back in real space and out of relativistic motion. And the bridge was overseeing a familiar but far too long gone sight. 




The oceans, as they were. The continents, still in their place. And getting closer, and closer, despite the fact that the propulsion had shut off long ago. The ship had entered the gravitational field some time ago, and was swiftly entering freefall. Already, flames were streaking across the hull - and Kyle was guessing that, somewhere in all the explosions, there had been some manner of hull breach. He knew the suit could hold up, but the rest of the ship was another matter. And if it did hold up, there was still a very unfortunate chance it could land in an occupied area - with no controls or power. 


Despite all that, Kyle started to laugh. There was danger. There was risk. There was mortal peril. But after all this time, all this chaos, he was here.


He was home. 

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