"Uh, okay," Tea says, breaking the silence that consumed us as we gaze down upon the bizarre crash site. "How do we deal with that?"
I don't have an immediate answer. As an experienced pilot, I need another moment to process the strange sight before us, because it doesn't seem real. Our wayward charge has managed to cut through the dense forest canopy and land their shuttle—at least, I think that's what it is—on its side and well into the rocky duff intact. The hull is held up by an astonishingly sturdy wingtip dug well into the ground soil and a flat length of plating near the fore. This is one absurdist feat of forced emergency landing that impresses me on multiple levels. The engine block and thruster section are clearly damaged in some way, so it had to have been a glide down or possibly even a deadstick landing. If anyone is alive inside, they'll have one hell of a story to tell, and I'll be happy to provide them with all the details.
Once they serve their sentence.
Amid the incessant hissing and snapping of dissociating air and the rank smell of ozone, electrical arcs leap across the wreck’s protruding parts. The noisy purple-blue discharge looks white to my eyes, searing my vision under the dull sky. Once my pupils can adjust for exposure, I find that some kind of burn damage is evident across the hull's center. A few outer panels have fallen off along the main body, exposing scorching hot piping, a bit of steam, and mangled wires.
The unpredictable electrical arcing will present the most significant challenge here. We can’t investigate what will certainly kill us. Has the ship's ignition capacitor really been discharging into the air for hours? How is that even possible? Is the reactor still on? It's a miracle this wreck hasn't kindled a forest fire. There are small debris fires around the crash site's periphery that we'll have to put out once it's safe to do so.
I kneel down into the dirt to carefully shrug the taxing load off my shoulders. The supplies I carried for several kilometers fall to the side with a thud, plopping into the mud. My shoulders thank me with a rash of burning and tingling. Nearly numb skin comes back to life, scolding my nervous system with pinpricks. I take a knee in the muck just below the crest of the hill, not really caring much for how it gets on my suit. I'm out of steam from our hike across the forest.
"Well, I don't know that we can handle this alone," I say. "Perhaps we better call in a subcontractor."
The implications of which are that asking for help cuts deep into our compensation for any interdiction, we'll have to go on watch again to make payroll, and Tea will be pissed her flawless intuition led to nothing profitable for us. She's very reward-motivated.
Fletcher hums. Amid the background crackling, I can practically hear gears whirling in his head.
"Tea, hand over my things," he commands like a gentleman wouldn't.
He seizes his engineer's toolkit from Tea and starts making his way down the embankment. Once I realize he's going off on his own, I get up and start after him, nearly slipping over the loose rock and soil.
"Whoa, wait, you're not seriously going down there," I start.
"Stay here," he says.
He padders off slowly down toward the crater. I look at Tea, and she looks at me. We both think Fletcher has gone crazy. He takes the initiative quite often. Our engineer does a job because the job is there to do. If he needs help, he asks for it. But his kind of heroic gumption is usually tempered with a dose of risk management. Typically he's fixing things when they're safely turned off and disconnected. As our engineer, he must know something we don't.
He is showing some real guts right now. I would not step any closer to such a high voltage plasmatic blaze. The noxious smell alone keeps me distant, breathing purposefully through my mouth rather than my nose. You could offer me anything in the verse: a billion crowns, a better ship, the correct gender marker on my ID, the love and respect of my parents, or hell, ovaries. No way would I step any closer to the landed ship at risk of getting fried by its overactive parts.
We are entirely dumbfounded onlookers.
And more curiously, he stops once he's down the embankment. He starts stripping his enswathe. First the wrist cuffs, then his boots, and beginning to make way with the torso.
"Uh…" I begin.
"What is he doing?" Tea asks in a near whisper, leaning toward me.
"Being a professional, I hope."
Fletcher writhes down to his jumpsuit and sets the rest of his flight garb neatly on a boulder. Then he unzips and sheds the jumpsuit, too. Now he's down to just his synthetic cloth underpants. His sturdy, hairy frame is now one with the wilderness. With his rough-cut beard, broad shoulders, and faded abstract chest tattoos I never knew he had, the only thing he'd need to complete his ancient Sibylean warrior cosplay would be a broadsword and some hair extensions. I want to admit that I'm aroused, but that's not true. I'm really just bewildered.
"Hmm. Strike one for hope," Tea smarts.
Out of his tool bag comes a loose silver suit or cloak I've never seen before. It must be some kind of electrician's protection. He gets dressed in it, looking like a big child playing make-believe aliens with tinfoil, and makes his way toward the downed craft.
Tea and I watch as the poor guy steps right up onto the hull, facing down the electric inferno without a care. He is an unstoppable human machine when it comes to getting something done. The garb he has donned has some free trailing wires that seem to provide a ground, so the entire cloak must be conductive. I think that I briefly see a bolt of electricity from the z-pinch unit hit his knee and travel down to the ground. Fletcher digs around some of the open paneling for a minute with gloved hands. Then he gives some kind of cylindrical object a heave; possibly the entire z-pinch assembly. Some sparks fly, and it looks as if he's been shocked, glowing like a demigod, but he's okay. The lightning bolts have stopped, too.
He throws the object down on the ground like he's made a game-winning slugball goal and raises both his fists in triumph, gesturing toward us with a flourish.
"Smart ass," Tea says.
"Smart is sexy, Tea," I reply. She isn't into guys, but I know she concurs. We pick up our things and head down to meet him.
"Did you see that? It worked perfectly," Fletcher says, removing the protective mesh over his head.
"Why didn't you ever tell me you were handy with high voltage stuff?" I ask him. I throw the SAR bag back down on the ground, maybe for the last time. It's regulation to leave nothing behind, but I'm tempted to just leave the incumbent bundle here. This is a crash site that will be swept later by the Royal Forest Service, anyway.
"Never came up," he says, looking down upon us from the spine of the plane.
"And dressing down?"
Fletcher smirks, "our flight outfits have metal all over them, and our compression suits have zippers."
Tea throws said jumpsuit up at him.
"Get dressed, asshole."
Fletcher catches his clothes and grins, stepping back down the shuttle's wing. I pass Tea and take a cursory look up the length of the craft.
"Right, let's see what the hell we're dealing with."
This shuttle or whatever isn't a design I've seen before, and Windsong had no data on it after it shaved us, either. It's a short angular hull painted in bright orange and white stripes and looks something like a snub fighter craft but with a broader beam and no weapons. It also looks like there may be some room to stand around inside and maybe carry a couple of passengers. But insane arcing aside, it doesn't seem powerful enough to ascend back through the atmosphere, even with its immense electric output. There's just not enough room for much propellant storage. I gather that perhaps it's a lifeboat. That wouldn't be out of the ordinary. Smugglers and traffickers sometimes utilize lifeboats to keep their electromagnetic signatures low and reduce suspicion. I keep my hand hovering over my holster just in case.
"Tea, I'm going to look for a way to open her up. Be ready," I command.
Consistent with my theory that the ship is a lifeboat, there is a safety panel that I can access from the outside, next to the frosted glass canopy. I open it, and there's a heavy red handle inside. I tug it.
There's the start of a pneumatic hiss, and then the whole canopy blows open with a bang, causing my ears to ring. The ejected frame smashes into a tree to my left and falls to the forest floor.
"Ahh!" I exclaim, gritting my teeth. "Shit."
"You good, Ash?" Tea asks.
"That is not quite what I expected," I reply.
I cautiously peer over the vessel's skeleton into a cramped two-seater cockpit, where an unconscious man sits in the seat closest to me. He leans lifelessly toward me from his vessel's canted landing profile, and his arms are slumped helplessly over the controls.
I reach over and feel for a pulse.
"What've you got, skip?" Tea inquires from behind.
"One adult male, passed out. Still alive. Help me get him out, Tea. Fletch, get dressed faster! We need your muscle!"
I unharness the man and climb up on the nose of the ship so that I can get some leverage underneath his opposite arm. Tea takes the side where I had been, and Fletcher appears, clad and ready to take the weight of the man’s legs once we free him from the ship.
"Ready? One, two, three…."
Tea and I hoist the wayward pilot free of the canopy. He's much lighter and scrawnier than I expected, with epicanthal folds and a narrow countenance. He has several gashes on his face that appear partway scabbed over, and his blood pressure must be high, as his neck and temples look like they are throbbing.
Fletcher grabs the rest of the man's weight, and we haul him over to the gurney Tea has prepared on the ground. Once he's down, we can get a good look at him, and Tea can do her triage.
"What is that?" Fletcher asks.
I'm not sure what he's talking about at first, so I step back after we lay the poor soul down. He's referring to a massive abrasion on the man's torso that I hadn't caught sight of while I was laser-focused on getting him free of his ship’s cramped cockpit. His civies have been ripped to shreds there. It's difficult to say how that occurred other than by plasma fire or another kind of thermal discharge. Perhaps an energy weapon, but the spread is too large for that.
Along the contours of the leathery but sealed burn, a dark, fibrous, thread-like material seems to be slowly writhing around, creating a lattice helping to hold his guts in. It's not exactly the most disgusting thing I've ever seen; I’ve seen a lot. It looks like what a healing wound is supposed to look like, in fact. The gooey threads move perceptibly quickly, at a millimeter or so at a time, as if an invisible surgeon was opposite Tea, carefully suturing him shut with surgical wire. There’s very little running blood. It's more mesmerizing than it is revolting.
"Hell if I know," Tea demurs as she prepares an intravenous medicine bag. "I'm a medic, not a doctor. He could be a rich rudderdick with some kind of extraordinary triage implants. No way am I touching it. Right now, I'm just trying to get this guy some fluids. He's been out here for hours. I'm just glad I don't have to apply pressure to a complex wound."
"You've never seen biomimetics like this before? Not even in all your time in the Republican Fleet?" catechizes Fletcher with a downward glare. I look up at him curiously. Fletcher comes from the most medically advanced nation in The Bary. The most affluent from all over venture to the Lux system to visit the best doctors and surgeons humanity has to offer. Healing—their definition of healing—is part of their state religion. It’s almost ironic that he’s our engineer and not our medic.
“He has no ID that I can find on his person, so maybe he’s chipped like all wealthy people are. I won’t know what’s up until we get him back to the ship,” Tea responds while working.
"Note to self: never suffer Tea as your savior," I crack.
She ignores me, and I take that as a cue that I went too far. I roll my eyes to shame my indiscretion. "Idiot," I mutter at myself under my breath. I let her work on helping our charge, and I move over to inspect the ship.
"Come, Fletch. Give me a hand with this door."
We brute force the passenger ingress open with leverage from a crowbar and some elbow grease. Once it's free, it slides over and clangs against the stop with a loud reverberating echo sounding like a bell toll.
I grab a slender taclight from its pouch on my arm and take one cursory step inside, carefully adjusting for the incline. There's a safety bar I can grab ahold of with my free arm. With the torch, I scope out the cramped payload bulkhead of the vessel. It's surprisingly spartan and empty. There are four unoccupied seats and safety harnesses but no crates, bags, packages, or cargo of any kind. As my light passes over the compartment, it departs through a hole in the wall paneling at the back that clears through the outer hull to the other side. Otherwise, nothing is going on back here at all.
"I think she took a direct hit to an RCS tank," I relay to Fletcher as I finish my search, voice echoing inside the tin can. I step out and look at him with a furrowed brow of curiosity. "But no one and nothing else inside. Our pilot is the only one?"
Fletcher looks pensive, an uncommon face for him to make, but one I know well. He huffs in response to my rhetorical questioning. He’s a thinking man, the kind that likes to mull things over. It suits him well as an engineer. He observes Tea and the unconscious man lying on the stretcher. The pilot of the shuttle now has the fluids and what minor bandaging he needs. He’s clearly alone. We can evacuate him to our ship if we drop everything else here.
"Based on our misdemeanant's flight characteristics," Fletcher begins, speaking to me sidelong, "the active high-voltage relay I pulled, and the fact that our pilot is still alive and is seemingly… healing himself, I guess…."
There's an ellipsis of words from him, and he bites his lip with a heavy, masculine tsk. Whatever he is thinking, he needs a moment to process it.
"I have a theory, skip," he starts. "But you won't like it."
"Why not?" I return.
"Because it's based on murmurs and myth as much as written record."
He turns to face me, and I've never seen him look so deadly serious, except when I'm shrugging off his attempts to console me when I'm moody. This is different. This is the look of a friend who has seen things, about to caution you against something terrifying.
"Back on Castor we called them Heralds. They would come to the Dominion every so often, particularly our respective twin capitals, acting as diplomatic messengers for the Commonwealth. They come alone and unannounced, preferring to blend in with the civilian populace, eschewing the pomp and circumstance of a regular diplomatic mission."
I can't believe what I'm hearing. The Commonwealth are a bunch of fringe lunatics who live on wrecks in the deepest volumes of the void.
"Whoa, whoa, wait," I interject to slow him down. "You're saying the guy who nearly hit us up in orbit is an ambassador?"
"Not an ambassador. More like an uninvited but welcome mouthpiece for an impenetrable nation-state that no one has ever established direct relations with. They come with a message to deliver to those in power who need to hear it, and then they take their leave, back to Port Angelice or whatever glittering heavenly megapolis they originated from. They appear without warning and leave almost as fast as they came."
This information is all new to me. We Sibyleans have our legends, but they are of our own realm and tempered with historical realism, or, at minimum, a playfulness that everyone understands is clearly fantasy. Despite hailing from a theocracy, Fletcher isn't religious, nor is he superstitious or given easily to hyperbole. And there are more scattered Commonwealth settlements closer to the far side of The Bary he immigrated from. Port Angelice itself literally sits in the barycenter.
I look back toward Tea, who is gently mending our charge lying on the pram. She's doing her duty: checking all his vitals and administering fluids and supplemental oxygen as needed. But she looks so calm and determined as a medic. She has a nurturing, even motherly posture in the role, kneeling neatly by the patient's side. A scarce look for a firebrand like her, whose main role on my ship is finding miscreants to run down and gloat about how good she is at it. It kindles something inside of me. I wonder if she washed out of the Republican Fleet because she just chose the wrong career.
My mind races through what I know of astrogeography, the known history of The Bary, and the very questions of our existence. Four—well, five—nations, floating eerily close together in the darkness, not so much as even a light-year apart, in a quintenary star system strangely well suited for all of us. Not a humanity that evolved here, but one carried by some unknown force we have yet to account for. A force that was so dreadfully arcane that my own earliest ancestors heaped praise upon this cold, rugged, gravitationally disturbed rock and its looming surrogate mother of a gas giant, personifying Sibyl and Dowager both as they granted a semblance of salvation from whatever they ran from.
These are not things I think about often. It's hard enough being a human, more complicated still to be a trans woman in a matriarchal society undergoing a reactionary repudiation of your very identity, and damn near arduous to be a private interdictor chasing down spare bounties for a living. Foreign affairs are not a topic on my mind much. Some long-haul freighters from other countries arrive and unload every few gyres, and several of ours leave on alternating schedules. We get some mass media beamed in from abroad, have some fun with the news and entertainment from across the void that need not be timely, and maybe we learn some foreign phrases for shits and giggles. The wealthiest socialites and most storied politicos among us might visit the opposite side of The Bary two or three times in their lives. For refugees of circumstance like Fletcher and Tea, it's a permanent, one-way trip.
The gravity of every clue we’ve found is coming together, accreting and coalescing in my mind. I don't like it, because it weighs about as much as a voracious white dwarf about to detonate in a supernova explosion.
"This individual is carrying a message. Someone is trying to kill and silence an envoy to your queen," Fletcher finishes my train of thought.