ESS Lore Volume 1: Eternal Winter
The story so far: Faced with the destruction of his home world, Pollux, En’kih is sent on a mission to bring the perpetrators of the eternal winter to justice. He departs through the added dimension just before Sharmall is hit by a radioactive fragment. The story now switches to Droo, over 500 years later.
Chapter 2, Juno Date 015.2167:
Captain Hodiyah Xene stood beside her crew at the base of her new ship, the DAC-29 ‘New Frontiers’. The shining steel sides of the Tendarri Class vessel towered above the crew, reflecting the mountain ranges surrounding the Novoneyra Launch Centre. A group of photographers and reporters were gathered behind a rope a short distance away, jostling to get a clearer view of the spaceship and its crew. Hodiyah breathed in the fresh mountain air and hoped this moment would last forever. The New Frontiers was her first command, and she viewed achieving this captaincy as her greatest achievement. She thought back over the many years of hard work which had led to this, starting as a young recruit in the Droo Alliance’s space cadet program. From such humble beginnings she had gradually progressed through the ranks of the alliance, serving first on Droo and then just two years ago receiving a promotion to Fleet Coordinator at the Herschel Bay Colony. While she had enjoyed her time Luna, operations were winding down for closure of the ageing base. When the colony was officially closed her career path was uncertain, but shortly after returning to Droo the Chief of Staff visited and announced that Hodiyah would be commanding an important exploration mission. With this command came the Droo Alliance’s latest in long-distance spaceship technology, the New Frontiers. The ship was powered by three ion thrusters, supplied with electrical power by an experimental spiral fission reactor that halved the crafts size compared to previous classes. Intakes were set into the rear fuselage, enabling the ship to refuel with atmospheric gas at suitable planets and moons. The crew compartment was slung underneath the triangular main body, with a set of huge windows providing impressive visibility from the bridge. New Frontiers was the flagship of the exploration fleet and Hodiyah’s ambition was to give it a reputation worthy of its appearance.
“And in front of the ship you can see the intrepid crew, led by Captain Hodiyah Xene” the launch site’s press manager was saying to the gathered media representatives. “As you can see, there are only seven crew members embarking on this mission, as leaving an empty seat allows more payload space for scientific instruments and sample gathering. The two shuttles this class is equipped with are designed to assist in completing exploration objectives, with large capacities and good manoeuvrability. We expect that the New Frontiers will be away for at least three months on this mission, and I can assure you that no compromise has been made in ensuring that the crew will be kept healthy and safe during this time. This is the longest mission time for any Tendarri Class ship so we can truly say that this journey will be ground-breaking.”
One of the reporters raised their hand and called over the sound of cameras. “Can you tell us more about the mission?” he asked.
“Of course,” responded the press manager. “This mission is to explore the outer solar system, especially the planet Pollux and its moon, Phoebe. The crew will be making many observations, several landings, and will return with large amounts of sample material for a thorough analysis of the pair’s history. We also hope to solve the mystery surrounding the recent archive discoveries mentioning Pollux’s irregular movements. The completion of these scientific objectives will be led by Doctor Ogmaz, a graduate of our own Novoneyra Research Institute.”
After several more questions, the press representatives were shepherded away from the launch pad. Hodiyah turned to her new crew and spoke: “We will be departing early tomorrow morning, so I suggest that you get plenty of rest tonight. I want all of you ready to give your full attention to our mission over the next few days! Deimos, please stay here, but the rest of you are dismissed.”
The rest of the crew walked down the pad steps and got into the launch facility vehicles. Deimos Folcher, the ship’s maintenance officer, stood with Hodiyah and discussed the remaining checks required for the next day’s lift-off. “I wouldn’t want to mention it in front of the other crew members, but I am slightly concerned about teething problems,” said Hodiyah. “This is not only the longest flight for this class, but also the first time this ship has left low Droo orbit.”
Deimos nodded. “I can appreciate your concerns, Captain. The other hands and I will be on high alert, so any issues should be resolved quickly. I am planning to have an EVA protocol active from lift off until day three of the mission, so we can make repairs from outside the ship if required at short notice.”
“Thank you for your initiative,” replied Hodiyah. “As you are aware the mission plan does allow for a two-day stopover at Cylero One. I have arranged a slot in one of their maintenance bays so any problems your team cannot solve immediately can be fixed there. I will see you tomorrow!”
The next morning, the New Frontiers departed Novoneyra, climbing vertically through the lower atmosphere and then gradually accelerating as the air became thinner. From the bridge, Hodiyah gave the order to circularize in low orbit for a full system check before accelerating out of Droo’s sphere of influence. With their attention free from navigation for a time, the bridge crew were free to admire the view. The panoramic windows gave an impressive prospect of the planet’s mountains, deserts, plains and vast oceans. Contrasted against the sharply defined terrain was the misty atmosphere, fading into the black of endless space.
The main bridge monitor was relaying the incoming results from the system check for Hodiyah when a warning tone sounded, and a component flashed red on her screen. She looked questioningly at Deimos, who was running the check.
“It’s one of the ion thrusters, Captain!” he called. “It appears a component in the vectoring assembly has jammed on shutdown. There is a spare in the maintenance stores, but we will need to complete an EVA to replace it.”
“Can you estimate how long before the engine is operational?” Hodiyah enquired.
“It is difficult to say, but no more than three hours.” replied Deimos. “Only two crew are needed for this job so I will take Columba; she has the most experience with vector assemblies.”
Maintenance officer Deimos and general hand Columba collected the required component then walked to one of the rear shuttle bays and suited up ready for their EVA. The New Frontiers had two bays on the underside of the rear fuselage which held the small shuttle crafts, and once the bays were depressurised large doors opened to the vacuum of space. All maintenance EVA suits were fitted with magnetic boots and RCS backpacks so that crew could exit through these doors and then complete maintenance tasks on the ship’s outer components.
Deimos led the way out of the bay and along the hull plating toward the thrusters. “The inspection hatch is just below the fin on this side,” he called to Columba. “We will need to tether the cover to the ship to prevent it floating off.”
Together they removed the cover from the thruster assembly and disconnected the damaged component—a small actuator which had sheared in half. Deimos handed the replacement to Columba and started to put the broken part in his tool bag. But when he turned the halves over to do so, he noticed a strange symbol cut on the surface of the metal. Puzzled, he hailed the bridge.
“Can Xanadu meet us outside the shuttle bay?” he requested. “There’s some sort of carving on this actuator, maybe she can decipher its meaning?”
The repairs completed, Columba and Deimos returned to the bay, where they repressurised and took their suits off. The door opened and New Frontier’s Nav & Comms Officer, Xanadu Tritos, entered. “You asked me to look at something?” she asked.
Deimos, who had been examining the part with Columba, handed the pieces to Xanadu. She placed the two halves together at the fracture point and looked puzzled. “It appears to be an hourglass symbol,” she said slowly. “But the intended meaning is impossible to guess. There is some writing underneath it too, but I can’t see the letters clearly, maybe a T and E? Presumably, this is some practical joke?”
Columba shook her head. “If this is a joke, the person who thought it was funny is very reckless! Look how the actuator has broken at the centre of the hourglass, and no wonder. It hasn’t just been drawn on; it is carved deep into the metal!”
Deimos tossed the broken parts into a scrap bin and turned to the door. “It’s quite a mystery, I will report it in the shared maintenance log to see if this has happened on any other ships. We must be back to the bridge though; I expect the captain is eager to get underway again!”
Two weeks later, New Frontiers was approaching the Cylero One polar colony for its planned resupply. The journey from Droo had been largely uneventful since the thruster repair, but nonetheless the captain wanted to give her crew two days shore leave. Fleet control guided New Frontiers down to one of the landing pads then some of the crew members were transferred to the base’s main habitation modules. Jun was setting over the low hills at the edge of the base, and floodlights were turning on around the buildings, giving the scene a dreamlike appearance.
Hodiyah remained with Deimos on the ship, and after enjoying the view of the base for a while she helped him oversee the first batch of supplies loaded into the rear bays. The maintenance officer was taking the opportunity to talk to an old friend; Logistics Commander Korre. Deimos had served with him at the base during a previous posting.
“It seems everyone has been talking about this ship!” he remarked to Deimos. “I had several people asking me in detail about your mission, which is quite unusual.”
“I’m not surprised” Deimos replied. “Curiosity was always part of our Cylero culture. Where they any of the old station crew?”
Korre shook his head. “No, I’ll confess I had never seen them before. But if I remember correctly, one was an elderly man! It beats me why the alliance would send veterans to the base, but luckily crew selection is none of my business!”
After the supply loading was completed Hodiyah returned to the bridge to complete her log, and Deimos remained for a while chatting to Korre.
Meanwhile, Xanadu Tritos was taking some time to relax in the base’s mess hall. She had never been to Cylero before, and it had turned out even more interesting than her expectations. It appeared that people from all regions of Droo were working at the base, and the bar area was packed. She was eager to strike up a conversation and make new friends, so she ordered some lemonade and sat down at the bar, exchanging greetings with several base crew members who were finishing their dinner.
After a while, a man with greying hair and long cloak walked over and sat opposite her. “Your uniform is different.” he observed. “I assume you are from a visiting spaceship?”
Xanadu nodded and introduced herself. “Pardon my curiosity, but you aren’t wearing base uniform either?” she asked him. “Are you a new arrival too?”
“My name is Lethe,” he replied. “I travel from place to place seeking peace in the beauty of the universe. I have heard about your ship; I believe it is called ‘New Frontiers’?”
“That’s right” said Xanadu, fascinated by this strange character. “What part of Droo are you from?”
They continued to converse for about half an hour, and Xanadu’s curiosity grew with every passing minute. Lethe appeared to be aged at least seventy, as far as she could tell, but his face appeared younger and his posture more energetic than the long white beard, cloak and staff suggested. ‘One thing is for certain,’ she thought, ‘he is different to any alliance employee I have met before.’
“There is a saying where I come from; ‘The farmer who hurries gathers unripe fruit’.” Lethe said after a while. “But there is a request which I must ask you to take to your captain. I wish to join your ship and travel with your crew.”
Xanadu was very surprised by this and was silent for a moment. “I will speak to my captain,” she agreed hesitantly, “but I doubt this will be possible. We are an exploration ship on a scientific mission and all extra space is to be filled with research samples.”
“I appreciate your kindness.” Lethe responded. “Please ask Hodiyah to consider meeting with me, I work in the aquatic plants section of the bio dome. I am there much of the time and would be willing to speak with her.”
Still feeling rather confused, Xanadu assured Lethe she would do so. He excused himself and left in the direction of the crew sleeping quarters. She remained in the base for a while—then noticing that it was getting late joined the other New Frontiers crew on a transport vehicle back to the ship.
When Xanadu returned to the New Frontiers, she went to the captain’s quarters and told her about the mysterious encounter. She described Lethe and told Hodiyah about his offer to meet in the base. “Thank you for telling me this.” Hodiyah said seriously. “It seems that there is a lot of interest in our mission from some very strange people. I will visit this stranger tomorrow.”
The next morning most of the crew were busy preparing the ship for departure. Hodiyah detailed Mitra, another of the ship’s hands, to go with her and meet Lethe. The captain requested a transport vehicle, and they were transferred to the base airlock. After taking off their space suits, they navigated the base’s rambling corridors, passing the mess hall and storage rooms. Finally, they reached the doors leading to the huge central bio dome.
Hodiyah had been expecting the dome to be filled with crops, but she was unprepared for the forest-like scale of plant growth which confronted her. Whole trees were growing towards the roof, and the ground was thick with undergrowth and outsized grass. The smooth, rounded walls of the dome extended into the mist on both sides, and she could faintly hear rushing water from deep in the forest.
“Xanadu said that Lethe works with aquatic plants,” Hodiyah called to Mitra, who was looking at the many paths leading into the undergrowth. “We should head towards the sound of water.”
The captain and Mitra followed a narrow gravel track winding between the tall plants, stopping occasionally to admire the beautiful flowers and pausing to gaze at brightly coloured insects flying between the leaves. The sound of water gradually became clearer, and they reached a narrow bridge crossing a stream. It was here they finally discovered the reason for the rushing sounds; off to one side a waterfall tumbled into a small lake.
“Captain, there appears to be a clearing around the pond, we may get a clearer view if we head in that direction.” Mitra suggested, pointing along the bank of the stream.
Hodiyah agreed, and they followed a track beside the water until they reached a grassy clearing. Next to the waterfall was an area of decking which extended over the water, and on it was a small table with several containers and other equipment.
“I think this is the right place!” Hodiyah exclaimed with relief. “Let’s wait for a while and see if Lethe appears. If I remember correctly, the break for the morning shift is just ending.”
The two sat for a while admiring the view. After a time Hodiyah stood up and looked at her watch. “He is certainly taking his time,” she observed. “I hope we won’t have to wait much longer; I have paperwork to attend…”
Her words were cut short with a gasp and sound of a fall, and Mitra turned in horror to see a cloaked figure with a mask covering its face. The captain lay on the decking unconscious, blood already bubbling from a bruise on the side of her head. The figure advanced, brandishing one of the containers. Mitra panicked and ran towards the shelter of the artificial forest, and for a moment she thought she would get away—but the undergrowth was impossible to move through and she could hear her pursuer getting closer. In her haste she failed to see a vine lying across her path and she tripped, falling over and getting tangled. The figure stood over her, now holding a knife, and swung its arm upwards to strike!