ESS Lore Volume 1: Eternal Winter
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. The mission is complicated by several incidents connected by an hourglass symbol. En’kih explains the symbol represents Tempus, a little-understood intelligent entity. After exploring Phoebe, New Frontiers is severely damaged when it strikes a debris ring. The ship makes a forced landing near the ruined city of Sharmall, and damage analysis reveals that more steel is needed to repair the nose plating. A ground expedition sets off to recover materials from the city, accompanied by En’kih who is seeking the body of his partner Yanat. They reach the nearest buildings and are shocked by what they find.
Chapter 11, Juno Date 063.2167:
For a while, the crewmates stood in silence and gazed at the sad sight. Dr Ogmaz had been aiming for a gateway in the city wall, which appeared to offer the best hope of entry. However, several smaller houses stood next to their path, and it was the first of these which had given Ogmaz, Xanadu, Columba and En’kih such a shock. They had expected a shapeless ruin, but instead a chillingly intact structure stood before them. The dwelling was two stories tall, with a chimney and small outbuildings. These had long ago collapsed into piles of ice-cloaked rubble, but the main house was still intact. Frost and wind-driven ice reached part way up the ground floor windows and filled up the rooms with deep drifts. The roof had collapsed on the upper floor, and only the top of the chimney had escaped the clutches of the thick ice. The doctor walked slowly towards the doorway and pushed aside some splintered ice to peer inside. Aside from some unidentifiable ice-shrouded wreckage lying among the snow drifts, nothing could be seen. En’kih remained silent, gazing on the ruins of what he knew was once a beautiful farmhouse. Dr Ogmaz turned back to the other crew members and without speaking indicated that they would move on.
The next building was a similar scene of bleak decay. “The state of these ruins suggests that this land was not inundated during the tsunamis.” Ogmaz said quietly. “It appears that the wind was once much stronger, all the windows and doors have been forced inwards to allow this ice build-up inside.”
“I believe you are correct in these matters.” En’kih agreed. “From our weather observations so far, it seems that the current atmosphere is not thick enough to force snow into buildings like this. I suspect that the makeup of this ice may be different to the upper ground layers. We should be able to reconstruct the period in which it was laid by comparing its makeup to a core sample. As each gas in the atmosphere sublimated it would have been deposited into layers by density.”
“We will soon be able to confirm that.” Ogmaz said. “I intend to take many core samples when possible, but for now we must concentrate on our main goal of collecting plating material.”
The four crewmates continued towards the city gates again and were relieved to discover that they were not blocked. A heap of crumbled timbers encased in the ever-present ice layers stood in front of the gateway, but the astronauts quickly found a way around these broken gates and were finally within Sharmall’s walls. Spires and tower blocks rose in front of them, surrounded by warehouses and other low-rise buildings. The sagging Aulas was much closer now, and the shadowy wreck towering far above them sent shivers down their spines. The track which had led to the gateway turned into a street here, and En’kih now led the way down this street, between the first of the tall buildings and into the heart of Sharmall.
“All these buildings are covered in ice.” Xanadu observed. “It will be impossible to free metal from them.”
“Do not fear,” En’kih encouraged her. “I believe we will find what we are searching for in the shelter of the tallest buildings.”
He continued to follow the gateway street for another kilometre, and then turned left onto a broad thoroughfare which appeared to run straight through the centre of Sharmall. At the foot of the tallest building, it opened out into a huge square.
“The tower in front of you is the Aulas Wa’keth.” En’kih explained. “This building was the headquarters of my organisation for millennia.”
“Radiation levels are still safe.” Columba reported. “They are elevated in this area of the city but not high enough to be of concern.”
The crewmates picked their way between heaps of rubble towards the ruins of the Aulas. A huge mass of concrete and masonry had fallen from the tower onto the square in front of them. Xanadu noticed that the ground surrounding them was covered in small bumps, blanketed by compacted snow. Curious, she walked a short distance to the nearest fallen wall and looked behind it. As she had hoped, this ground was sheltered from the prevailing winds, and the cobblestones of the square were laid bare. And there, contorted into grotesque shapes, lay the bodies of Sharmall’s inhabitants. Xanadu gasped and staggered backwards at the tragic sight. She called the doctor, Columba, and En’kih over.
When the old man saw the remains of his fellow citizens, he remained silent for some time. Finally, he spoke slowly and deliberately, his voice breaking with emotion. “I will avenge the death of my people, the power that did this act must be destroyed for ever.”
Xanadu put her arm around his sagging shoulders. “We will do everything we can to help you with this quest En’kih.” She reassured him. “But first we must repair the ship. It looks as if there are exposed steel beams at the base of the Aulas building.”
“You are right, let us focus on the task at hand.” The old man nodded.
The crew walked further into the wreckage of the vast tower. Behind more broken walls, a ramp of rubble led down into the heart of its foundations, where bent metal reinforcers and beams were piled in a jumbled mass. They left the vacuum pods next to the shattered walls and picked their way down the slope until they were standing among the rusted metalwork.
“We can easily cut some of these struts.” Columba announced confidently. “It shouldn’t take long to reduce them into sections and then we can carry them out for storage in the pods.”
Xanadu was carrying the metal cutters, so she set to work with Columba on cutting through the steel rods. Dr Ogmaz and En’kih wandered further into the ruins. After a scramble over some fallen bricks, they discovered what looked like a cracked doorway. Flooring tiles were partly obscuring the entrance, and together the pair dragged them to the side.
“This door has a huge lock on it.” Ogmaz observed. “The frame still seems to be intact, maybe this is a way into the basement of the Aulas?”
“It may well be,” En’kih replied. “I don’t recognise the door but there were several sections of the building which I never visited. One thing is for certain, this portal was designed to be airtight. See how it slots so closely into the frame!”
The doctor bent closer to examine the edges of the door and was amazed at the precision with which the heavy metal door fitted into its surroundings. It appeared that the building was cut into bedrock on this level, for the frame had no clear edges but rather stood out from a long face of stone. A huge bolt was drawn across the door, and although several dents bore witness to heavy blows it had suffered during the Aulas’ collapse, it was still sealed securely. En’kih carefully eased the bolt back and tried to open the door. Dr Ogmaz helped him tug at it until suddenly their efforts were rewarded with a loud, grating sound. Almost immediately the heavy door swung back towards them on its hinges, accompanied by a flurry of dust and escaping gas. The old man leaped aside just in time, but the doctor received a heavy blow and lay dazed for a moment.
“Doctor, are you injured?” En’kih called.
“I’m alright,” Ogmaz reassured him. “My helmet took most of the force, and there seems to be no damage.”
The doctor scrambled to his feet and looked in amazement at the dark entrance which now presented itself.
“The chamber behind the door must have been pressurised” En’kih realised. “The airproof seal has retained an atmosphere from before the eternal winter!”
“I think you are correct,” Dr Ogmaz agreed. “I hope we have not destroyed the last remaining ecosystem on the planet by opening this door!”
Drawn by irresistible curiosity, the two crewmates turned on their helmet lights and carefully entered the dark doorway. Their torchlight played on rows of shelves and bookcases, masked in a thin layer of frost which was already thickening as the heat was sucked out of the room. When his light fell on the floor, the doctor gasped and grabbed En’kih’s arm in shock.
“Footprints!” he exclaimed.
Covering the floor in front of the door were several lines of footprints, leading from the nearest row of shelves to the door, then back again. Ogmaz knelt to take a closer look and saw that the faint marks in the dust were slowly being obscured underneath the forming frost layer. The marks never crossed the doorstep, but instead blurred as if the walker had turned around and paced back again. He glanced back outside and noted that there was no latch or handle on the inside of the door. With a shiver he realised the horror of being trapped in this dismal, airtight chamber with no hope of escape through a sealed door.
“They all seem to lead to these shelves” En’kih called to him.
The old man was searching among the crumbling storage units, still filled with ancient manuscripts. Ogmaz turned from the door to join him and slowly shone his torch into all the dark recesses of the room. The doctor realised that this must have been an archives vault, built to preserve the records, thoughts, and lives of Pollux’s long-lost inhabitants. He could sense the depth of knowledge contained within these dusty parchments, but he knew that recovering them would require great care and many years of research. ‘Maybe, one day, there will be a colony on Pollux. What a way to complete my career; a decade of studying these writings and transcribing the minds of a lost civilisation!’ he thought excitedly.
The doctor’s musing was interrupted by a loud cry from En’kih. “Ogmaz, over here!”
He ran to the old man, who was bending over something lying on the floor. It was the motionless body of an alien, wrapped in a long cloak just like En’kih’s. Dr Ogmaz dropped to his knees beside the body and gently pulled the robe back from its face. The alien’s skin was pale and covered in a layer of frost, but he realised that there were no signs of decay or decomposition. On its face was a peaceful expression as if in sleep. Hardly believing what he saw, he turned to En’kih.
“I believe this body is in cryogenic hibernation, brought on by the low temperatures and stable atmosphere within this room.”
But the old man was not listening, for he too had caught a glimpse of the face. “This is my partner, Yanat!” he gasped. “They must have sought shelter in this room and became trapped before the Aulas fell.” He knelt beside Yanat’s body and gently touched their face. “Are they dead?”
The doctor was amazed at this revelation. “It is hard to be certain,” he eventually said. “If they are indeed in hibernation, it is critical that we return them to a stable atmosphere and then slowly raise the body temperature within controlled conditions. But how can we do that, so far from the ship?”
En’kih turned and ran for the door. “We can use one of the vacuum pods!” he exclaimed.
Xanadu and Columba were about to fill the last of the pods with metal when En’kih and Dr Ogmaz scrambled up the wreckage towards them.
“Doctor, is everything alright?” Xanadu called on her radio.
“We have found a body which appears to be in hibernation.” Ogmaz responded, panting. “We are going to load it into one of the pods and return to the ship.”
Their metal collecting tasks forgotten, all four crew manhandled a pod down the slope to the doorway and carefully laid Yanat inside. The doctor slowly raised the air pressure until it reached ship atmosphere conditions, then adjusted the temperature to gradually increase.
“I cannot be sure what damage was caused by the sudden depressurisation when we opened the vault door.” He admitted. “But I believe that what we have done now will give the best chance of survival.”
As the sun rose over the distant hills, it glinted off the New Frontiers’ recently repaired nose plating and revealed scores of boot and wheel marks surrounding the ship. For the past week, dozens of exploration trips had set off from the vessel to study nearby terrain features and alien landmarks. Dr Ogmaz had compiled a mine of information which would give him many months of detailed study, and he was already planning a ground-breaking book on the first contact with extra-Droovian civilisations. While the hectic science schedule progressed, Deimos’ repair work was gradually completed, using materials from Sharmall and spares from the ship’s stores. A full ship diagnostic the night before had confirmed that all systems were fully operational. Kalfr, who could now walk without crutches, had spent several days observing and modelling Pollux’s double debris ring, to enable a safe departure from the planet. With the repairs completed, science goals fulfilled, and a course plotted, Captain Hodiyah Xene gave the order to prepare for lift off. Smoke and dust billowed out of the DAC-29’s three main thrusters, accelerating the great ship upwards into the pale morning sky.
Epilogue, Juno Date 070.2167:
In the medical bay, En’kih sat by his unconscious partner. Yanat’s body temperature had been slowly raised and one by one their life-signs had returned to normal. Dr Ogmaz assured the old man, who had barely left Yanat’s side all week, that they would awake soon. Now En’kih held onto Yanat’s hand as the ship vibrated from the power of its ion engines, and as he did so Yanat slowly opened their eyes. Weeping tears of joy, the old man bent to kiss his partner.
“Forgive me for leaving you alone.” He whispered.
Yanat squeezed his hand and smiled at him. “You had no choice, En’kih. And you have returned now.”
Meanwhile, the New Frontiers rolled to one side and began its first course correction. The bridge crew had a fleeting glimpse of two dusty debris rings rushing past, then the blackness of outer space. Phoebe slowly drifted into view as the ship turned onto its homeward course. Hodiyah relaxed and smiled at the other crew. The captain thought back over the long weeks of their mission. She had been confident of her crew even before launch, but after the thruster malfunction low Droo orbit, this confidence was solidified into trust. Later, at Cylero One, their open-hearted acceptance of En’kih had strengthened her bond with them. Finally, under pressure on both Phoebe and Pollux, the entire crew had pulled together to ensure each other’s safety. Now they were on their way home, with all mission objectives completed despite many setbacks and near-deadly interference from the mysterious Tempus entity.
“Next stop, Droo!” she exclaimed.
The whole crew cheered and shook hands. But in their moment of celebration, none of them noticed a black, hourglass-shaped silhouette crossing the face of Phoebe…