Subsubsection: 19 August 2018 (Relativity Jumping Up and Down) Up Subsection: HMS Javelin

14 October 2018 (Battling the Structure of the Universe)

A little later, back on the planet, Lt Findlay is in charge of a shore party (Gillies, McRobert, and Neilsen) guarding the alien nanotech site. The xenoarcheological teams and the nanohazard teams have been withdrawn, but the site is still considered dangerous, and people have to be kept away. Marines are doing some of the guarding, but letting them get bored is a bad idea. Playing I-spy here is very dull.
The site is about half a mile out to sea, and about sixty feet underwater. There’s a caisson for access, with a lift shaft and a floating platform at the top, and a pressure tent at the bottom covering the object and surrounding seabed. The exposed part of the object is about forty feet long, and seismic surveys have shown the whole object is about house-sized. It has an opening that a man in a suit could fit through. On the top platform there’s a landing pad, with an aircar in case evacuation is necessary, and some basic huts for accomodation and research.
The nitrogen/carbon dioxide atmosphere is unbreathable, of course, and everyone wears heavy-duty pressure suits. There is some plant life, but very little in the way of animals. The climate is slowly thawing, but there’s still quite a lot of floating ice, with a large floe passing at present. There are surveillance feeds from orbit, modulo clouds, and plenty of cameras on the platform, caisson and tent. If you fall off, climb the caisson’s external ladder, or walk uphill until you come ashore.
Two pieces of special equipment have been issued: an anti-nano coating for everyone’s suits, based on what’s currently known about the alien nanotech, and a Spot-in-a-Box. Javelin’s crew are being used for this work because they already know about the alien nanotech, and the other secrets associated with it. The group aren’t the most martial who could be supplied, but the brief is to tell people to go away, and if they don’t, call for help, and fire warning shots. McRobert is horrified to discover that she’s the most capable with a blaster rifle.
Time passes, slowly. A call comes from Javelin that the passing floe is warmer than it should be, by maybe half a degree. Sensor scans from the platform, indicate that it’s heating from the top, all over, looking up reveals several point UV sources, matching the weather control satellites. Nielsen logs into the satellite network, discovering that they’ve been remotely hacked, and it must be at least partly an inside job, because it was done via an “official” software update package with a proper signature. He removes it, and Findlay orders sensors in the water. There’s a lot of noise of shifting ice, and balloons taking off from the floe and heading towards the platform.
They’re weather-balloon sized, about two metres in diameter, with packages below them, looking like weather balloon equipment enclosures, with a power supply and propellers that are driving them towards the platform at about walking pace. No sign of weapons on them, and shooting down the balloons isn’t hard. Listening to the balloons and payloads sinking reveals their purpose: distraction from the sounds of a cutting torch coming from below.
Findlay stays up top to run communications with Javelin, which has a boat full of Marines on the way, and the others descend to the pressure tent. There’s a mini-sub, for about three people, attached to the outside of the tent, with an opening through the tent and nobody inside. One of the sphincters in the alien object is closing, although they’re too late to see inside.
Findlay sends the Spot-in-a-Box down in the lift. Gillies suggests flooding the tent, but settles for repairing it so that they aren’t relying on the submarine to keep the water out. Adding more hydrophones reveals the sounds of an exchange of laser fire inside the object, and it definitely sounds like two sides. McRobert asks Findlay to send down a roll of cable and rigs a loop antenna round the object in the hope of hearing transmissions. There’s screaming with occasional words in English, and encrypted tactical bursts. Nielsen and Findlay figure out that the tactical stuff is much like that used by the Symposium of Asian States forces, by frequencies and patterns; the content is unreadable.
The people shouting in English seem to be losing the fight: there are two voices. The Symposium uses Japanese and other east-Asian languages (not Chinese). The accents of the English-speakers sound like a colony world where English is the first language, but it’s not obvious which one. Trying a bit of electronic probing, to see what protocols the tactical systems respond to, suggests Amraphel, an English-speaking colony world known for its “liberal” ship registrations and arms manufacture. (Findlay calls Javelin for a Marine force.)
Transmissions from both sides are cutting in and out, as far as the receivers can tell, but the sides don’t seem to be experiencing that, and it doesn’t seem like frequency-hopping. There’s a lack of keenness to go inside, but as this is being discussed, a cylinder of water, large enough to hold a person appears in the tent and collapses, revealing a person in a light pressure suit. Matter transmission and teleportation are not known technologies.
Said person has been wounded, by laser fire, is and holding a pistol, which he drops on demand. He claims to be from the Reformed University of Amraphel, a member of a research team. This is a known euphemism. Gillies applies first aid, and then runs him through the decontamination station at the foot of the lift shaft. He had no obvious infection before decontamination, but making sure seems wise after the events of “Distracted by the Loud Bang.” There’s discussion of what would happen to the prisoner’s comrades if they were abruptly subjected to sea pressure (they’d probably survive), and Findlay checks the logs for the sensors in the sea for signs of anyone else, in case they’re in the sea. Nothing.
The shouting in English has stopped, but occasional tactical bursts are still being picked up. McRobert asks the prisoner what happened. “Full of bloody guards down there and they’re not even yours.” He came in on the minisub “for research” and the Symposium people were “already down there.” McRobert recalls that the shuttle that took off from here during “Distracted by the Loud Bang” tried to rendezvous with a “merchantman” that was from the Symposium. He doesn’t know how he got out: someone shot him, he ducked back round a corner and found himself underwater for about ten seconds (he thinks), then he was here in the caisson.
The boat with Marines is ten minutes out. The prisoner confirms that the weather balloons were a distraction, and that his team was looking for anything high-entropy in the artefact, since that’s likely to be data storage. Neilsen pulls the prisoner’s suit recordings; Gillies takes a look and spots a flicker on the video feed, a half-blank frame every 5-10 seconds. It clearly wasn’t as obvious with direct eyeball observation, but might have a beat frequency with the camera. In terms of the record; the three of them go down the tunnel, round a corner, and spot three people on watch and a few more researchers poking at things in a large chamber, all of them in pressure suits. The security people, at least, appear to be Kotetsu Rengo rather than full-on military. After that, things go as he described – except that, between ducking back round the corner and finding himself underwater, he was briefly in a xenon atmosphere. (The suit sensors registered this; he may have been too distracted to notice.)
The Marines arrive and take over in the caisson, planning their way in. Smith goes in first, sneakily; there are small surveillance cameras in the first corridor, sometimes. She writes numbers on pieces of paper, puts them down, and waits for them to vanish; it ends up being three distinct sets of places, one of which (number three) is full of xenon.
Sliding a subminiature camera round the corner shows a chamber which is one of: empty with CO₂/nitrogen, full of researchers, or full of xenon and sparkly things, like multicoloured fireflies but with more of a sense of purpose. Most of the time these changes are correlated with the changes back in the corridor… but not always.
The team waits for the right moment for the research team to be present, and goes in fast – the enemy’s weapons are no match for the Marines’ armour, and they’re in light armour themselves, so they’re taken down quickly. There’s one more Amraphel “researcher” on the ground, clearly shot. The Marines ask what happened to the other one; one of the researchers starts to answer, and then there’s a discontinuity and a xenon atmosphere with fireflies… the team is careful not antagonise them (though some of them land on the armour, crawl around a bit, and take off again). There’s a body, or at least most of a body, outlined in fireflies; it’s in the process of being rapidly dismantled by them.
A few seconds later the team is standing on the sea-bed, underwater (with no fireflies). They hold position. Seconds after that they’re back with the researchers, and they get everyone out. (“But how did you get a commando raid in? We own orbital space, and nobody’s said anything about this. Ah, it must be those new stealth ships we’ve been hearing about…”) There’s a bit more flickering on the way out – this seems only to affect the team and the things they’re carrying, but the prisoners aren’t sufficiently organised to do anything about that.
Given the ongoing activity, there seems to be a case for carefully resuming research on the artefact.
The prisoners are confused. Some of them appear to exist, already, in other parts of civilisation. Gretton suggests that if they give their parole they can work with the British research teams and aim to get back to their original universe; they are inclined to agree.
Analysis notes that the SAS researchers don’t have the same anti-nanotech coating on their suits that the Navy team does. This hasn’t been a problem for them. It seems that the world which Gretton visited isn’t the same one that they came from.