The First Sailors
rating: +27+x

Four adventurers left the confines of a cryogenics chamber.

"Fuck, fuck, too real! No thanks!"

One bounded forward, one strode, one cleared their mind of their thoughts…

Micha Maina sped across the gray crater-ridden plains, light of the three suns reflecting off their spacesuit. They scrambled over the debris of monolithic towers that had collapsed across the landscape, panting into their mic. Behind came the hunter.

…one kept looking back and wondering if now was their chance.

« Micha, listen carefully, » Alexander Maxwell said over their comm systems.

The hunter could barely be considered an animal. It was a mass of debris in the shape of a serpent, held together by strands of white muscle ligaments, floating through the air like it was dangled by the strings of a puppet master. Its three jaws kept snapping.

"Been listening the whole time!" Micha shouts.

N.J. saw the events nearly a full kilometer away. She rested atop one of the few standing towers, lying down and watching through her binoculars. Further up was the plane researchers Hyeon 3Mun and Alex were using as a command center.

« Get to the next tower, turn a sharp right, duck right down before the next hunter sees you. »

Micha jumped from the debris pile, landed in a pile of ash, and sprinted. They fumbled for their pistol. Three shots went off and all of them missed the hunter.

They climbed the ladder's rungs, leaving the habitation ring's false gravity to weightlessly drift through bland corridors. Their new home.

« Firing isn't going to help. Get to the tower. »

"Being so calm when I'm gonna die doesn't help either!"

The hunter stretched its jaws wide and slammed into the ground inches behind Micha, ash bursting all around. Through the haze N.J. saw Micha reach the next tower. They ran along the base to their left, entering an alcove formed from debris and the wreckage of a many-limbed machine.

"I— Now, what, now what?"

« Duck right now. »

They dropped. Two more hunters entered and passed over, unaware. Heavy breathing. N.J. was pulling down her binoculars, ready to focus more on her own safety when she caught glimpses of Micha's surroundings. She zoomed in on the side of the tower next to Micha.

"Command, this is Watts—"

There was a shudder and a fading cry. The Bifrost Superluminal Engine deactivated outside, stripping them of their pocket of spacetime that had carried them from Neptune, bringing them back into the universe.

« Don't need to call us Command, Enjay. » Hyeon's voice was shaking.

"Something's happening to the wall next to Micha."

Cracks widened along the wall. Chunks of the tower throbbed in and out, trying to break free of the structure's grasp. White muscle tissue emerged and wound between each chunk, bringing cohesion to the debris. The wall tore itself apart with the intensity of a thunderclap and a new hunter rose into the air. It turned its jaws down to Micha, flew down to them, and crunched.

N.J gagged. She put the binoculars down, trying to look at anywhere in the maze of towers asides from where Micha had tried to hide.

« Maina is down. » Alex's tone had barely changed. « Hyeon, how's the situation with Watts? »

« Oh. Shit, right. »

« Hyeon? »

« I'm uhh, sorry about this, but Enjay, don't move a muscle. »

"Wait, what's happened?"

« A hunter is behind you, » Alex said.

Her spacesuit clanged as something knocked against her arm, wholly out of sight. The knocking continued until the thing scraped against the suit, then smashed into it.

Lights in the bridge flickered on.

Then stabbed through.

Shutters opened.

Warm blood spilled and she pulled her arm back.

A vast expanse of stars appeared before the crew.

The last words she heard before the upper half of her body was ejected from the tower roof was Alex saying, « I thought I told you to keep an eye on her, not what I was doing! »

They had arrived in Terzan 2.

* * *

The four adventurers sat in the simulation room, silent. N.J lifted her VR headset and ran her hands through her short black hair, making sure it wasn't too messy, taking her mind off the lingering sense that she should be torn in half but wasn't. Vague silhouettes of eyes glared at Hyeon from under the black haze surrounding Alex's head, a perceptual anomaly left from some unspoken accident. Alex let his face fall into his hands, which became equally clouded by the haze.

"Enjay, I'm uhm, sorry about… Getting you killed back there."

N.J. yanked herself from headspace and rushed to a reply. "It's fine." She winced. Couldn't she have a better response to an apology?

"I was, well, feeling fairly overloaded back there." He coughed.

She failed to think of another reply. She idly moved her arm back and forth, pulling the wires leading from her simulation suit to the computers in the back of the room. They clinked with the floor in sync with her motions. A good distraction from conversation.

"So, Hyeon?" Micha asked.

"Yes?"

"Wanna switch roles next time? Don't think I'm cut out for this ground exploring business."

"Gladly. My mind can't keep up with a lick of what command does."

The door opened and Phirun Keo entered, wearing a gray suit emblazoned with the Extrasolar Activities Department seal. His expression was blank. Everyone's head turned.

"Mr. Keo, can you tell us how badly we messed up now to get that over with?" Hyeon asked.

"As much as I expected. It's nothing to beat yourself up over, I can assure you. The simulation you went through is directly modeled off the first exploration of Tau Ceti g, back in the 2020s. The bunch we sent there forgot about how unpredictable anomalies can be, got too excited for their own good. Can you guess what happened?"

"They all died?"

"They all died. We used this simulation because all of you need to prepare for the unexpected and, well, there will be a lot of that in Terzan 2."

A projector turned on, holograms flowing from it into the room's center to form a tight cluster of dots — a representation of the Terzan 2 star cluster. It blinked to a smaller size, the rest of the galaxy rapidly forming underneath it.

She tuned out of the lecture Phirun had jumped into. Like they didn't know how unpredictable the place could be. She had been working on exploration there since the Ehlers-001 probe had first been sent to the cluster, and the photos the probes sent back taught her more than enough about "unpredictability": shots of a swath of space smeared, stars molded into cubes and pyramids, a black hole filled with white. And that was ignoring the way SCP-3417-1 manipulated an AIC to serve the Ortothan war effort.

"…and you can't split up the way you did back there. That's a great way to…"

Still blabbering. N.J could ask Alex later if any of it was important. The hologram shifted into the shape of Semiautonomous Exploration Vessel Kessler-002.

The ship's main body was a long, sideways tower, antenna and dishes thrown on at seemingly random places. The squat sphere of a fusion reactor was attached to the underside, and opposite of it was a cubic machine, which N.J. had never seen before in her years at the Foundation (redacted, she guessed). Stuck on the end was the octahedral behemoth of the Bifrost Superluminal Engine, looming over the main body as a boulder would to a pebble.

"…of course, that's if there is any ground exploration. There's a good chance you'll be in here the whole time…" Phirun pointed to the habitation ring at the ship's center — the only defining difference from the standard AI-run probe design. The crew's home for however long they would be out there for.

Hyeon started talking. N.J. tuned back in.

"…and I think we all realize this. But I want to know— Terzan 2 is 28 thousand light-years away. Barely in the galaxy itself. Yes, I get that we can learn some good stuff by sending probes there, and anomalies can compromise AIs so we need people with them, but again. This is not a war that'll ever touch us."

Phirun stared down Hyeon, facial expression unchanging.

"What I want to know is if this is really a threat we need to send humans to research?"

"It is. We've recently confirmed reports that Twelve Stars vessels have, in fact, left Terzan 2. Multiple attacks against Ortothan settlements in the Milky Way and Andromeda have occurred. If they find that human Ortothan populations exist we'll be looking down their gun barrel. It'd be a K-Class to rival all K-Classes. Do I make myself clear?"

Hyeon sighed. "It's clear." He waved Phirun off with his prosthetic hand.

Micha's camera eyes whirred as they zoomed in and out, as if in disbelief. "Those attacks were still thousands of light-years off. Can't say I buy that, Mr. Keo."

"If anyone has problems with what I have been repeatedly telling you, you are more than welcome to leave the mission. You will be amnesticized, returned to you normal line of work, and someone else will take your place."

The response left Micha's mouth open and finger raised, ready to launch another question assault, but they quietly nodded instead. Phirun paced, expectantly glancing around. He retrieved a small remote from his suit, pressed it, and let the hologram dissolve.

"Well, seeing as my advice was derailed, I think this wraps up today's training. Meet back at this room tomorrow. You'll be out in Terzan 2 by May, in a month's time."

He walked to the door. N.J pulled herself out of her seat, wires still connected to her simulation suit dragging across the floor, and approached Phirun.

"Mr. Keo, I have one last question."

Phirun stopped and turned. He was slightly taller than she was, enough to make talking to him like this annoying. "What is it, Watts?"

"I spent several months of the past year working on building the first Bifrost Engine." Memetic blockers jabbed into mind. Specks of memory forced back. "Everything about those months has been removed with amnestics and something MemDiv cooked up. Now, seeing as I'm about to be living on a ship propelled by that thing…"

She breathed in. "…Can you tell me what it was I built?"

He sighed. "Watts, I'm sorry, but you know how it is with these things."

"Keo…"

"It isn't my decision to keep this redacted. Trust me. I'd tell you if I could, but that wouldn't end well."

"So what if the damn thing breaks? You want the only person from its engineering team to be completely unable to fix it?"

"The AI can handle it."

"And if, oh I don't know, a 3417 instance or something unpredictable comes along and breaks that AI?"

"Subsystems can handle it."

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out; calm down. "Fine then." She crept back to her seat.

"I'm sorry Watts, but this is the way it is." Nothing about his voice felt genuine.

Hyeon leaned over. "Enjay, are you feeling alright—"

"I'm fine."

She had to go on this mission. She had to figure out what she had built.

Phirun reached the door and paused. He added one last note for the four. "Godspeed."

. . .

"How does it feel knowin' we're the first humans to ever be in this area?" Micha called out through Hanger Section 1, vaulting over the mechanical claws of an inactive repair drone. They glided as gracefully as possible in zero-g until knocking their head against the hangar wall. Far too cramped of a space.

"Pretty damn cool, I have to say," Hyeon replied. "You, Enjay?"

N.J. silently nodded from the far corner, poring over the ornate details of a spacesuit layered in bulletproof armor and a maze of thaumic warding sigils.

Alex poked his head out through the repair drone's hatch, propping a shoulder up on its spherical chassis. "Well I can't say I feel the same."

Micha stopped caressing their forehead and raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"I'd be feeling better about it if there was any chance we'll ever be remembered for being here."


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