ESS Lore Volume 1: Eternal Winter

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The story so far: 500 years after the civilisation on Pollux is destroyed, the Droo Alliance ship New Frontiers is on a mission to investigate the outer Juno system. After gaining a new crew member at Cylero, the ship has reached the outer system. Dr Ogmaz and Kalfr make a disastrous trip to an impact crater on Phoebe, which causes Kalfr to be admitted unconscious to sick bay and ends with an incredible healing at the hands of Lethe. Hodiyah demands the truth from the old man, and he reveals his identity is En’kih, citizen of Pollux, member of the Wa’keth, and avenger of his extinct people.

Previous Chapter

Chapter 9, Juno Date 062.2167:

The New Frontiers’ three great ion thrusters rumbled into life, sending long blue exhaust jets streaking out into the blackness of space. Sunlight glinted off the ship’s sides as it re-orientated to burn retrograde and drop into orbit around Pollux. The planet loomed large off to the port side, with the weak sun reflecting off sharp icy mountains and glowing faintly in the thin atmosphere. After several busy days of exploring Phoebe, the crew were on their way to the parent body to uncover further mysteries of the outer system, and the bridge was a hive of activity. The rest of the DAC-29 was also busy—Dr Ogmaz was in his lab and Lethe, or En’kih has he now preferred to be called, was running checks on all sick bay equipment. Following his revelations a few days previously the old man had been officially promoted to medical officer, leaving the doctor free to continue his scientific investigations and research. Ogmaz believed he had a workable hypothesis to explain the Pollux orbital anomalies and had spent long periods deep in conversation with En’kih to compare his theorised sequence of events with the Pollux citizen’s experience. They had also debated the Tempus mystery, but despite their efforts had not reached any clear conclusions about the nature of the entity. In addition to his medical duties and discussions with the doctor, the old man regularly attended meetings with Captain Hodiyah to answer questions and brief her on details about Pollux. Over the past two days he had completed a full map showing the major cities and landmarks of his home world. His attempts to connect this map to the present state of the planet proved somewhat unsuccessful, however.

“I am only able to identify some of the main landmasses.” He had explained to Hodiyah the previous day. “There are several highly anomalous features which were not present before the catastrophe.”

These terrain formations had been the subject of more debate and investigation with Dr Ogmaz, and after many hours at the telescope they had reached a conclusion.

“There are two huge impact basins on the surface of the planet; we believe they were caused by impactors of similar size to the one which produced the complex on Phoebe.” The doctor had summarised to the captain in her evening briefing. “Upwellings of low-density materials have resulted in the fractal pattern which can now be seen covering the floors of these craters. The shockwaves produced by the impacts clearly caused large-scale disturbances across Pollux, which effected the oceans more than bedrock. It appears that global tsunamis occurred, flooding many low-lying areas with water, and then rapidly freezing as temperatures dropped. We expect to find all regions outside of the tholin highlands covered in a thick layer of ice, the formation of which will likely have destroyed all artificial structures.”

“I assume this means you both recommend focusing research on the highland regions, then?” Hodiyah enquired.

“For the most part that is correct,” En’kih confirmed. “However, we would like to make several trips to the impact sites to compare readings with those made at the Phoebe basin. We wish to determine whether these impactors were the same as the aforementioned one, or whether they are made up of moon rock.”

“I see,” the captain nodded. “In terms of sensor readings, the bridge crew assure me that we should be able to land the mother ship safely on the surface. They are running a final analysis on surface composition to prevent any catastrophic corrosion events, but so far everything is looking good.”

As the engines pushed the great spaceship onwards, the view out of the bridge windows began to change. By degrees Phoebe slid out of view and the huge, haze-streaked disc of Pollux loomed closer. The bridge crew gazed in breathless awe at the desolate sight. En’kih sat in one of the jump seats behind the captain’s chair and gazed solemnly at his devastated home world. Hodiyah, realising that he was finding the silence difficult, turned to the old man.

“Do you expect to be able to complete the map once we are in low orbit?” she enquired quietly.

“Yes, I hope so.” En’kih replied. “I will be able to study the surface in far more detail from a lower altitude. My plan is to look for several key landmarks which have the greatest chance of still being visible. First on my list is the Unity Monument, four huge pyramids linked by stone walkways. If I can find this site, then I will begin searching for the ancient castle chain which once crossed the central highlands region. Finally, several of the cities and other monuments were built far above sea level and may have survived with very little damage.”

“I’m pleased you have such a detailed plan of action,” Hodiyah observed. “When we enter Pollux orbit, I will have some important log information to record, but I can work with you on site identification later today.”

Lethe was about to respond when a loud alarm sounded. The captain leaped round to her console and read the alert message. “Proximity Alert” the bridge warning system blared. Xanadu terminated the engine burn and brought the ship’s radar scanner readings onto the main screen. The image appeared to show a line right across their path, and for a moment the bridge crew were unsure of what they were looking at.

“It’s dark debris ring!” Deimos realised. “We need to adjust orbital plane and reduce closing speed!”

Xanadu began to adjust the ships orientation but just as the New Frontiers began to turn there was a deafening smash and the hole ship shook. The crew clung to their seats as the bridge shook under several hard impacts, and more warnings started flashing up on their consoles.

“We’ve impacted the ring! Main engines are losing power, and there is damage to electrical systems.” Deimos reported. “We are switching to emergency battery reserves.”

“Guidance authority is failing!” Xanadu warned. “We may lose helm control!”

Emergency stations was called, then the captain calmly went to each crew station and received a brief report of all damage. Failing engines, broken guidance, damaged hull plates and electrical shorts were her most concerning discoveries, along with a multitude of non-essential system shutdowns and instrumentation failures.

“We have two options,” Hodiyah announced. “Assuming we are able to regain helm control and engine power we can continue the burn to gain a stable Pollux orbit outside of the ring, and then abandon ship. This carries the risk of further debris damage during the burn—and with our nose plating out of action this would be catastrophic. The second option is to maintain our current course and attempt a soft landing using main thruster power alone. Repairs can then be completed on the surface.”

For a moment, the bridge was in silence except for the faltering rumble of the ship’s failing power systems. Then Columba, in one of the rear jump seats, cleared her throat.

“I believe we can land the ship using main thrusters.” she stated. “Pollux has a thin atmosphere, so re-entry at a shallow angle will ensure aerodynamic control authority right down to the final engine burn for touch down.”

“Columba makes a very good point,” Deimos agreed. “And I think it is far better to land and fully assess our situation from the safety of the ground than take our chances with more debris and abandon the ship.”

While Hodiyah and the other crew members were speaking, En’kih had left his seat and had been studying Xanadu’s navigation console.

“Our current course will lead us to a large, flat area at the edge of the highlands” he observed. “I would suggest following the plan of action Columba and Deimos recommended. I believe a safe landing in this region will be easily accomplished.”

Captain Hodiyah looked around at all the crew members and saw approval on their faces. “Then we shall attempt a landing!” she decided. “Kalfr and Mitra, please ensure that all loose lab equipment is stowed ready for when we switch to vertical configuration.”

For fifteen minutes the ship continued its course, creeping ever closer to Pollux. Xanadu worked with Hodiyah and Deimos to calculate the required engine commands, while the rest of the crew ran emergency landing routines on their consoles or worked to secure all the loose items throughout the ship. Due to failing power systems the New Frontiers’ artificial gravity would not be able to smoothly transition the crew compartments from horizontal to vertical orientation. Without the correct preparations, this could lead to hardware damage or even injury to the crew.

As the first haze layer in Pollux’s upper atmosphere loomed closer, Hodiyah ordered all crew to strap into the bridge seats ready for the landing. Soon the ship was starting to shake as it cut into the frigid air. Dr Ogmaz carefully monitored temperature readings from the damaged nose as plasma surrounded them. The DAC-29 was fitted with auxiliary heat shielding for situations like these, and no further damage occurred. Once the re-entry was over, the ship started to raise its nose until the engines were pointing towards the ground. On the bridge the crew braced themselves as the g load increased, then the three main thrusters hummed into life. For a few fleeting moments, a panorama of breathtakingly rugged terrain and gleaming ice mountains swung across the bridge windows. Then, as the ship reached its landing attitude, the view was replaced by a pale grey sky streaked with high cirrus clouds. The captain was monitoring the landing and she was relieved to see that all touchdown sensors and systems were functioning correctly. A countdown to contact showed on the main screen she held her breath for the impact. The New Frontiers touched down on Pollux with a gentle bump and was instantly shrouded in a cloud of steam. The ship shuddered for a moment and then settled again.

“I think we have broken through surface ice deposits” Dr Ogmaz observed. “We should now be firmly on the bedrock.”

The relieved crew clambered out of their seats and rushed to the windows. The spectacle which awaited them was so awe-inspiring that silence fell on the bridge for several minutes. Immediately visible was a tall range of hills surrounding the landing site on three sides, making a natural boundary for the plain the ship had landed on. The peaks appeared misty in the late afternoon sun, dark red tholins giving way to gleaming white ice on their steepest slopes. Behind them, high above in the pale sky, lines of cirrus clouds slowly crept onwards, contrasting against the faint arc of the ring system which had almost destroyed the DAC-29. Directly ahead of the ship, visible through the dissipating cloud of steam and dust, the plain sloped gradually away into a confused jumble of chaotic terrain. At the centre of this plain was a set of unnatural-looking structures, clearly buildings. They stood forlorn, with slumped floors and collapsed outer shells, surrounded by lower roofs, towers, and walls which were partly obscured by ground mist. One skyscraper stood out above the others, a vast tower which appeared to have been struck a great blow near its roof. Huge steel beams hung at crazy angles from its shattered walls, and its twisted corner columns were dark with rust. The crew stared in amazement at what must once have been a great city, and was now just an empty ghost of its former glory.

The story will continue in Chapter 10, releasing next week...

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