The Crucible Episode One Chapter One

The edge of reality is an unforgiving place.

There is no light out here. Just darkness. A cold unrelenting darkness that has witnessed every second, every minute, every century, and every aeon.

It outlasts all.

And it waits. Waits for an opportunity that comes once in the lifetime of each galactic civilization.

In the cold it sits. In the darkness it watches.

Until we give it the opportunity it seeks.

The Mari Sector, Research Dig Alpha 78

“Are you serious? You left the levitation pads back in the jumper?” Research Manager Amy Lee crossed her arms tightly against the stiff fabric of her environmental suit. Her helmet was off – they’d already erected an environmental field around this huge cavern. So everyone was able to see her scowl. She was good at frowning, too. She’d had years of practice.

Ensign Weatherby brought both his hands up and took a step back, regulation brown boots crunching over the fine gray-white rock beneath him. “They weren’t in the manifests to be brought to the dig site,” he protested.

“Well you should have thought ahead. There’s no way we’re going to be able to shift thousands upon thousands of tons of rock with no levitation pads. Put your helmet on and go and get them,” Lee snapped through a clenched jaw. The powerful lights they’d set up all around the dig site gave off a tremendous glow, one that glinted along that thin slice of her glistening white teeth.

Ensign Weatherby swallowed, throat pushing hard against the navy blue and black of his Star Forces uniform. He turned quickly on his heel, feet scampering as he rushed away from her.

Lee stared at him, hands clamped on her hips.

When she’d petitioned Star Forces Command for military assistance on this dig site, she’d kind of hoped they’d give her a crew that wasn’t wet around the ears. These kids had probably been out in space for a week.

She turned suddenly, the boots of her EV suit pressing against the soft and crumbling rock of the cavern floor.

Behind her was a sight she’d never seen in her career. Most digs were simple. No larger than a modern day light cruiser.

This… this was different. Every time she paused to stare around the cavern, an undeniable race of nerves chased up and down her back. Sometimes it was even hard to breathe.

This place was… incredible. It was on another level.

The size of a city, they’d only been able to unearth half a square kilometer so far.

It was enormous. It put every other dig site she’d ever worked on to shame.

Behind her was a massive flat wall. It wasn’t made out of the soft white crumbly rock that littered the ground. Instead matter scans had revealed it was a never-before-seen composite of trithalium, one of the hardest substances ever identified.

The wall was completely unadorned apart from a small circle lodged right in the middle. A good hundred feet from the floor, they’d had to set up scaffolding to reach it.

Right now the most trusted members of her team were investigating that strange circle.

A circle within a circle within a circle, etched around the insides of each concave component was an unknown script. One small enough that it was almost on the atomic level. It contained so much information that it would take a week to scan through it all. Not, of course, that anyone was close to understanding it yet.

Research Manager Lee took another step towards that awesome sight. That’s when it happened. Another goddamn tremor. It shook up through the floor, chasing up the walls, rattling the scaffolding in its place. Despite the fact it was magnetically locked onto the wall, it still trembled like a palsied hand.

Lee staggered to the side, dropping to one knee and securing a hand to the ground. The rock was so soft her fingers pulverized a section to dust.

The tremor stopped.

She punched to her feet, scanning the cavern in every direction. “Any injuries?” she snapped.

Her team slowly picked themselves up from wherever they’d been standing and waved at her.

She let out a terse breath and locked her hands on her hips. Then, without even realizing it, her gaze flicked up towards that massive smooth wall.

Powerful hover lights roved around it, reacting to air currents as they shifted and bobbed, their bright yellow-white light illuminating the whole wall.

Tension built in her chest, and before she noticed it, it trapped her breath in place, driving it hard into the back of her throat. She clenched her teeth and brought her hands up, the fingers pressing into fists.

This would be the most important dig of her career. There was an unknown civilization behind that wall, she was sure of it. A dead one, of course. But she, Research Manager Lee, would be the one to drag it out into the light.

Taking one step back, her gaze still locked on that wall, she finally turned. Angling her head towards the massive hover lifts that sat along the back of the cavern and allowed people to ascend to the surface above, she wondered where Ensign Weatherby had gotten to.

If he wasn’t careful, he’d miss this historic moment. The moment when they would open a door into the past….

Ensign Weatherby

He brought a hand up and wiped it over his helmet. The atmosphere of this old moon was unpredictable. Though there wasn’t enough air to breathe, condensation kept covering every surface. His EV suit was slicked with it. If his superiors had opted for better equipment, the suit would be able to auto adjust to the condensation, and evaporate it clean off every surface.

But his superiors had not opted for better equipment. To them, this was just another dig. Important for archaeological purposes, but essentially a distraction.

Tensions were building within the Alliance. Before he’d left for this dig, he’d heard a few reports of skirmishes in the Calcore Sector. He hadn’t joined the Academy to be sent on babysitting missions like this. Plus, Research Manager Lee was enough of a ball breaker that she could look after herself. She didn’t need a full contingent of Star Forces personnel just to hold her scaffolding.

Bringing a hand up, Weatherby tried to clean the visor of his helmet again. Spreading his fingers, he angled his hand until the palm of his EV suit could scoop away the condensation on his visor. There were grip sensors sewn into the pads of his gloves that helped him pick up things in this otherwise cumbersome suit. They were perfect for clearing his visor, though the effect didn’t last.

“Christ,” he spat, voice twisting with bitter frustration. Christ, he didn’t want to be here.

He petulantly kicked at a rock by his feet. Though the move was angry, it wasn’t powerful, and yet he pulverized the rock, and it scattered fine particles of white-gray dust over his reinforced boot. He watched the dust scatter over the rounded surface of his shoe and fall back to the ground.

Then that goddamned condensation made it almost impossible to see again.

He was on the dark side of this moon. Though there was a star in this solar system, this damn rock turned so slowly you barely got to see it.

Technically his suit had an inbuilt light source lodged into the center of his chest that could be activated with a tap. Well, his was acting up. It kept blinking on and off, sending bursts of powerful illumination scattering out over this rocky wasteland with the erratic pulse of a guttering candle.

He swore again. He even tipped his head back, clenched his teeth, and let out a stifled scream.

When he let his head drop, he saw something. Just at the corner of his vision, maybe 20 meters away.

Then the light on his suit went out completely.

His rational mind told him he’d probably seen another member of his crew – some other poor soul who’d been ordered around by Manager ball-breaker Lee.

Still, he couldn’t deny the pulse of nerves that tore up his back. His fingers and toes tingled with a quick shot of adrenaline.

He waited for his light to turn back on.

It didn’t.

Something scampered towards Ensign Weatherby. His suit was too old to pick up the sound of its erratic quick movements as it flung itself over the soft ground.

It was just another dark shape on a black night.

Weatherby took a step back, and his light flickered back on.

He screamed.

The creature was upon him. It latched its claws into his chest and ripped his suit from his body, reaching in for the flesh beneath.

Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd

Christ, I was bored out of my skull.

I shouldn’t be. This was the first rest I’d had in over two months. We’d docked with the Argus Service Cluster – a group of interconnected fueling stations orbiting the Central Ruling Planet. CRP housed the galactic House of Lords and Ladies and every center of trade and scientific excellence in the Milky Way. It was also the home planet to the Star Forces Academy.

I’d graduated from that very Academy almost 7 years ago now. I’d climbed quickly through the ranks of the Star Forces. Somehow. It was still a surprise to me that I was a lieutenant commander at my age.

I stood with my elbows pressed against the railing before me, leaning out as I watched the view. I was in the Central Administration Hub. Behind me was a massive domed building that housed the House of Lords and Ladies, and below that the Primary Central Library of the Alliance. Though the building itself was a sight to behold, I chose to stare down from one of the many platforms that encircled it and watch the people below. Sky bridges connected the various buildings of the administration hub, blazing into light every time someone stepped across them. Due to the sheer amount of air traffic in this sector, the bridges were not stationary structures. Rather they were made of electrified light pads that followed a person as they picked their path through the very air.

When I’d been a kid, sky bridges had blown my mind. They seemed like such a leap of faith. You had to take a step and wait for the electrified pad to form under your foot.

If it didn’t form?

You fell.

A leap of faith.

Those words echoed in my mind as I brought a hand up and ran it over my chin, short fingernails raking through my afternoon stubble.

Why did it feel as if everything I was doing these days was a leap of faith?

I wasn’t a dramatic man. I’d been trained well. I knew that one of the greatest threats you would ever face was your own mind. Space travel had come a long way since humanity had first set out to explore the stars. Still, there was something so alien and lonely about those vast wastelands of space. If you didn’t have your wits about you, it would turn against you.

Something was happening in the galaxy. It had been building for years now. Discontent. Whispers of a new enemy. As every year passed, I heard more and more stories. Maybe they were just that – stories – or maybe they were more. But one thing was for sure: there was a growing disquiet amongst the citizens of the Alliance. I saw it reflected in the faces of my crew. You had to concentrate to notice it, but it was there, in every new wrinkle, in every narrowed gaze, in every tight-lipped frown.

It was as if the Milky Way was building towards… something.

Something.

“Lieutenant Commander, I heard your ship docked this morning,” someone said from behind me.

The soft words, the lilting accent – there was only one person it could be.

I turned around to see Lady Argoza. Her family ruled over an area of space at least 100 systems wide. They were one of the most powerful forces within the House of Lords and Ladies. And they were good, kind-hearted folk, which seemed to be a rarity these days.

Though the Lady was only my age, I’d grown up with tales of her humanitarian missions. With nothing but her personal guard in tow, she would go into disaster areas to offer aid. She’d also be present at the aftermath of battles, administering to the wounded and supplying much-needed medical equipment.

She was a saint.

And she was also stunning.

Her race had the smoothest, softest skin, and the most vibrant wide eyes. Locks of ice-white hair tumbled down from her head, and her smile was the kind that could take you to the stars.

My lips kinked into an awkward grin, and I instantly brought up a hand to smooth down my short hair. “Lady?” There was the slightest kick of nerves to my tone. I could command troops into battle, but it always did me in every time I tried to talk with Argoza.

A lovely smile spread across her lips. She clasped her hands before herself, and she nodded low, hair tumbling over the dark blue collar of her tunic. “I assume you will be at the function tonight?”

“I’d better if I want to keep my command – it is being held in our honor, after all. So it would be pretty rude not to show up,” I said, instantly regretting my choice of words. They sounded flippant and arrogant.

Driving my teeth together I tried to hide a wince.

There was no point in acting like a love-struck teenager around Lady Argoza – half the goddamn galaxy was after her. A simple lieutenant commander in the Star Forces had no chance.

Still, I swear she put more effort into her smile, her soft lips pushing high into her cheekbones. “Of course. I will be there too,” she said as she kept her hands clasped in front of her, and she took a low bow, “I would relish the opportunity to thank you for your heroic efforts.”

I had to try extremely hard to stifle a snort.

Heroic efforts? I’d been doing my job. The same with my crew. When we come across that civilian transport being drawn towards a black hole, it had been our duty to intervene. Leave them to die, and we would have gone against everything we’d been taught.

We weren’t heroes. We’d just been there at the right time.

Maybe Argoza could sense what I was thinking because she shook her head lightly. “You sell yourself short, to borrow a phrase from your own people. You are a hero, Lieutenant Commander Shepherd,” she said my name slowly, and it sounded like honey pouring from her lips.

I found myself smiling again.

“Will you be in the capital for long?”

“Just a couple of days. There will be the function tonight, then my ship has to go through routine maintenance. Then we’ll be… off on a mission,” I said. I didn’t need to tell her the details of that mission – to be honest, I barely knew them myself.

Such was the nature of my job.

Approximately six months ago I’d been recruited into the Fair Strike Operation. A top-secret intelligence mission for the Joint Admirals Committee. I’d been given a top-of-the-line prototype reconnaissance vessel and a crew hand-picked from the best.

Our remit was simple: carry out the orders of the Joint Committee, whenever they were received. You could be halfway through rec leave only to be ordered to a mission halfway across the galaxy. It didn’t matter.

My crew and I were here to serve.

It was an honor – one of the greatest honors in the Star Forces. Only the cream of the crop were picked for the Fair Strike Operation. Almost everyone else only knew it as a legend.

“If you find yourself in need of company, I am at your disposal.” With her hands still pressed in front of her chest, Argoza nodded low once more.

Damn, I could have blushed at that. “No, no, Lady, you’re far too busy to hang out with the likes of me.”

She looked confused, then another one of those pleasant smile spread her lips. “We choose what is important in our lives.”

A kick of nerves raced through my gut.

But before the nerves could ignite into anything interesting, someone called the Lady’s name. She arched her long elegant neck around as one of her many aides came breathlessly to her side.

“Lady, the House of Lords and Ladies is about to begin voting on the new security policy.”

Lady Argoza’s once pleasant smile froze, and she gave a determined nod. “Very well.” She turned to walk away but then turned to face me. Those laser-like white-blue eyes reminded me of stars on a moonless night. “I will see you tonight, Lieutenant Commander.”

With that, she walked away, her robes floating around her.

Unashamedly, I stared until she was out of sight.

Then my mind caught up with me. The House of Lords and Ladies was about to vote on the new security measures.

I knew which way the vote would swing.

Though there were still a few voices of reason in the House of Lords and Ladies, a growing disquiet was spreading like wildfire. While there were no new threats to speak of, there was a definite sense of tension in the air.

And when people are afraid, they do stupid things. It hadn’t taken long for one of the Mandrican senators to suggest sweeping changes to the security laws. They would tighten up immigration, provide the Star Forces with new enforcement powers, and, most importantly, they would redirect resources for more ships and more weapons.

The Star Forces was already battle-ready. We had more cruisers than we knew what to do with. Most of them were just sitting around in dock waiting for the day they’d be needed. But if that day never came, they’d be a massive waste of time and resources.

But….

But – but something. Something was happening. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but this galaxy was changing, almost from beneath my feet.

As I thought that, I looked down at my polished regulation boots, then let my gaze slide up until I stared past the city and to the horizon beyond. Locking my gaze on the point where the land met the heavens, I concentrated.

It was time to push away my disquiet, if only for a few hours, and prepare for the function tonight.

Then I could worry about the future. Because then I would be on the bridge of my ship, and I’d be able to do something about it.