“What is that thing?” Marla tilted her head and frowned. She leaned in closer to the hologram, rotating it to try to get a better view.
“What?” Kenji turned from the comm console, trying to get a peek at what she was looking at.
She poked a finger at the hologram, her fingertip lost in the projection. “Right there. Are you seeing this too, or is it just me?”
Kenji slid his seat closer and moved her hand out of the way. He peered at the spot. There was definitely something there.
“Does that look like a structure to you?” she asked.
“It sure looks like something.” A rock formation maybe? He frowned. It looked a little too regular for that. “Can you zoom in closer?”
She shook her head and scowled. “The resolution’s too low. They did a high altitude scan.”
“Oh.” Of course they did, he thought.
A surface scan had to be registered with the Department of Earth Engineering to stake out a claim, but you didn’t need to specify the type of scan. Just the results. A high altitude scan didn’t pick up enough detail to make out anything smaller than twenty or so feet, which meant that it pretty much always returned a negative result.
“Well, it’s hard to tell, but you’d better call the captain down here.” Kenji turned back toward his console and muttered. “He’s not gonna be happy about this.”
Marla wrinkled her nose and sighed in defeat. She tapped her intercom. “Captain Bates, this is lieutenant Winslow. I need you to come down here, sir.”
There was some static, followed by a clipped answer. “Be right there.”
Kenji gave Marla a sympathetic smile and slid back to his station.
She held the mandatory post of xenology officer on their ship. Kenji knew she was Confederation born, just like the rest of the crew, but he doubted anyone else knew. She was a pretty private person, and after years on Eir, first at the Academy and later in the service, she spoke with the same Eiran lilt as every other Alliance officer. She was also the only one on board whose paycheck was picked up by the Alliance. No matter how hard she tried to fit in, she was an outsider. To make matters worse, most of the crew thought her job description was to be a pain in their ass. Although Kenji was one of very few people to approve of her role, he was certainly happy not to sit in her seat.
Marla thrummed her left hand-fingers on the armrest and twisted the hologram controls with her right hand, trying to find the best angle. The view zoomed in and out, centered on the small, dark square, surrounded by miles and miles of white, gray, red, and ochre sands and rock. No trees, no plants. No water. Just mountains and ravines and sand. And a small black structure.
The doors slid open and Captain Alex Bates stepped into the comm center. His sharp, brown eyes focused on Marla and her hologram.
“What is it, Winslow?” he asked.
“Sir, I’ve found an anomaly on the surface.”
“An anomaly.” His voice was flat. “The scan returned negative.”
“Yes, sir, I am aware of that, but it was a high altitude scan. They’re not always as accurate as we might wish.”
He raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Marla rotated the hologram in his direction. She picked up a thin, short pointer and indicated the black dot on the hologram. “I found this in sector seven, approximately five miles from the prospective drill site.”
His eyes flickered from her face to the hologram and back. He didn’t respond.
Marla cleared her throat and zoomed in as close as the low resolution would allow. “As you can see the resolution is too low to clearly make out what it is, but it’s definitely too symmetrical to be dismissed out of hand. It could very well be a structure of some kind. It’s my recommendation that we delay the surface landing and send a probe for further investigation.”
The captain sighed and leaned back against the bulkhead, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
He waved away her words and walked up to her workstation. He was rolling something back and forth in his hands. “You are aware,” he said, “of the situation back on Eir, lieutenant? The blackouts, the riots? Yes? And I trust you are similarly aware of the thing that might fix all that. The very thing that we are here to get.”
Marla nodded and looked down on her hands. She carefully placed the pointer on the panel in front of her.
Captain Bates held up a sample tube holding a small, angular lump of silver gray metal. “This is why we’re here. This is what can save all those people, and what will also save this ship from being decommissioned. But we have to claim the site first for that to happen. If we delay, we lose.”
“I’m just doing my job, sir.”
“There is a shit-ton of michurium down there, Winslow. And we got here first. We need to claim the site now; the people back home need this. I realize you’ll have a job whether this ship flies or not, but the rest of us might not. We’re working on a profit margin here. The Minerva’s future might depend on this mission.”
His eyes tried to bore into hers, but she refused to meet them.
He flung his arms up in frustration and slung himself into the nearest empty seat. “What, you think the others are gonna give a flying fuck about protocol when they get here? You think McCauley or Capio will? No, they won’t, and you know it. They’re gonna ride in here like they already own it. If we haven’t claimed it by the time they get here, they will go down there, regardless of what that”—he waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the structure on the hologram—”blob is. Nevermind that we arrived first. They’ll claim the site and pretend they never saw anything.” He took a deep breath and slumped in his seat. “ Nobody cares, except for you.”
“If that was true, I hardly think the UPHC would pay me to do my job. Sir.” Her eyes were still downcast but her voice made it clear she wouldn’t budge. Not for anything. Kenji respected that. He wasn’t sure he would have been able to face down Captain Bates like that.
“Have you seen the place? It’s nothing but rocks and dust. Ain’t no way there’s anything alive down there.” The captain shook his head and swiveled in his seat. “Fine,” he said, “fine, fine, fine. I’ll send down a team to investigate.”
“A team? You can’t do that. If there’s a lifeform down there you’ll contaminate—”
“I don’t give a shit, Winslow.”
“Protocol dictates no human interaction—”
“They’re going. That’s it, end of discussion. Besides, we have only one drone left. I’m not risking that one for something like this.” He sat up straight, eyes distant. “In fact, why don’t you go with them. See for yourself.” He stood and tossed the sample tube on her interface panel. “Take some samples, do… whatever it is that you do, and be done with it. It’ll be night down there soon, so be quick about it. I want that beacon in the ground.” He paused and looked at her pointedly. “I’m sending Alaria down with the team too. The second she gets any indication that this is just another bogey she’s planting that claiming beacon, protocol or not.”
Marla sighed and nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll go.”