The USF Chronicles are the official lore of Infinite Fleet, documenting the important historical events and character journeys dating up to the start of the main game.
Mila had never seen alien ruins before. Neither had Rick, as he peered over her shoulder. In all her readings on xenolinguistics the thought of a species away from Earth communicating through architecture was incredible, but also, merely a thought. A theory, waiting to be proven. As she clutched the screen displaying Einar’s vision between her white-knuckled hands, she could not look away.
The surface of CS-79C, which Mila had no doubt would be renamed following such a discovery, was beautiful. Einar and his ground team, including Savannah, had touched down on the cusp of one of the two circles they’d identified from space. Within it, were three more circles a few kilometers apart. It wasn’t until they’d approached the surface from space, breaking the atmosphere and nearing the ground, that they saw the three smaller rings, housing what might once have been a civilization. The ground there was smooth, each stone like polished marble, and the team tread it softly. Structures, monoliths, were enshrined by the three rings. Once they’d stood tall, but now many lay crumbled, white dust swirling in corners and whispering in the depths. There were archways, beautiful ruined archways that had once marked paths winding through the city like blood to a heart. Only one survived, stretching skyward. It resembled a prism, a triangulation of lines coming to meet at a point that should have felt harsh but instead, felt quiet. Powerful, maybe. A quiet resolve in the midst of chaos as the bones of the city lay spilled at its feet.
The paths connected the circles, each ring housing crumbling structures, some that had been tall, and some that had wound far above the surface of the planet but had fallen long ago, their rubble a scar of a memory. In the centre of the arteries, the bloodless shell of what once had been, was the heart. It resembled, ever so slightly, a beacon. That’s all Mila could think to call it.
A wide beam of white light shot skyward from its center.
Alabaster white and swirling with soft lines enshrined in its base, the structure bloomed toward the sky, its mouth wide in a soundless scream. It’s mouth reminded her of a satellite dish. From its center stretched a thin spire, no thicker than a needle. Mila only noticed it when it caught the light, as it was dwarfed by the beam it emitted. The atmosphere had previously clouded it, but on the surface, the light was impossible to miss. Was it transmitting something? All the paths ran toward it. The circles bordered it. Was it ceremonial? Did it hold great meaning for those who had inhabited this world? It was beautiful. Mila would have understood any type of attachment to it, though at the same time, she thought it was beautiful by her standards. Maybe it was feared by the people, instead. Or a tool with great purpose. Mila’s screen began to pulse as Einar’s voice clouded through her ears. An energy signature. The beacon wasn’t just light, it had energy. How long had it been there? Was it the source of the gravitational anomaly?
“Sir!” Savannah appeared in front of Einar, breathing fast and hard. Her helmet hid much of her face, but Mila could see the tears streaming down her cheeks. “Sir, we found them.”
The mission was for Tanaka’s unit to work together to protect and escort a damaged drone from AI-controlled attackers. Positioned in the back of the formation, she stared down the drone in front of her. She was meant to pick off any straggling attackers that her fellow cadets at the front had failed to hit. It should have been an easy enough task until Anderson threw an asteroid belt at them. The leader at the front, Tanaka couldn’t remember his name, barked out orders to maintain formation and cover appropriate sides to blast through encroaching asteroids while fending off enemy attackers. He wasn’t a variant. Obviously.
Tanaka didn’t even have to calculate the exact odds of flying through an asteroid belt at their speeds with seven Interceptors in formation to know they weren’t good. To the left, the first hole appeared. Someone missed the asteroid hurtling toward them as an enemy ship approached in full assault. Swerving from formation, Tanaka let off a plasma beam, scissoring the asteroid in two for her fellow cadet to soar through. For good measure, she took out the assaulter as well.
“Tanaka, maintain formation,” said the mission’s captain. She thought hard about his name. James?
“Wilco,” she said, and returned to her position at the back. This time she could see it. Their impending doom. Her sensors flickered as enemy vessels appeared from behind the squad. They’d need to outfly them through the asteroid belt.
“Sir,” said Tanaka, “enemies coming up the rear. We need to outfly them.”
“We’ll turn around,” said the captain.
Stupid. They would turn around, in an asteroid field, and be no closer to delivering the drone to safety. The enemies at the rear were part of the game, like a timer ticking down, forcing them to fly to the end in a push to victory.
“We’ll leave the drone exposed,” said Tanaka.
No response. No one was listening to her. She stared at the helpless drone flying along in front of her, about to be shot to pieces. Did no one care? Was no one listening to its cries for help?
As the team began to turn on the captains’ orders, Tanaka instead shot forward. Blowing over the drone, she let loose a tow cable from the back of the vessel. In one moment it connected to the drone with ease, and in the next, it jerked the drone away from the formation, hurtling full force behind Tanaka’s Interceptor into the incoming asteroid field.
“Tanaka!” the captain called to her. She cut the comms.
Breathe. There’s a drone attached to your tail. It’s trying to fly it’s designated path. Overpower it. Account for its weight. Apply enough force to overcome its attempt at autonomy. You’re saving its life. It will understand.
Asteroids. Left, right, up, down, above, below. Enemies. Closing in. Shoot the one in front, it’s already cleared a path to get to you. That’s useful. Fly over the remains and straighten out. Nice path, not very long. Bank left, feel the drone snap behind you. It does. It’s fine.
You’re calculating for two now. Shoot the asteroid that will clip your wing, shoot the one next to it that will clip the drone, spiraling behind.
Up and over. Down and around. You could turn a kulbit if you really wanted to. You don’t want to. An enemy vessel races behind you and opens fire on the drone. That’s really annoying. Nosedive, snap the drone out of firing range. You have to do it now. You have to get rid of the fighter on your tail.
You turn a kulbit. It’s perfect. Grip is tight, teeth clenched, shoulders tense, your heart feels like it stops as you stall the top of the loop. The enemy vessel blows by beneath you. Idiot. Complete the circle. The drone sways behind you. Fire.
The enemy shatters. Don’t fly through its remains. Fly around. One shard could kill the drone, cut the line, anything. No mistakes. Not now.
The threshold is close. You can see it. A green hologram painted inside the simulation, flashing for safety and promising victory. Where is your team? Where is the captain? The one that doesn’t listen to you?
Tanaka crossed the threshold, her screen blinked Mission Complete. She’d done it. Her cockpit was wrenched open and someone to her right--the mission’s captain--tore off her helmet. “What the hell,” he said.
“The drone would have died,” said Tanaka, climbing out of the simulator.
“That was my call to make. We needed to stay as a team to stand any kind of chance.”
“This wasn’t about the team,” said Tanaka. “The mission was to keep the drone alive.”
“What about us? You left us all to die!”
“That is a true statement,” said Tanaka.
He shook his head. “You could have denied that.”
“Why would I lie?”
“Enough,” said Anderson, approaching with his tablet. “Tanaka, Johnson, step away from each other.” The cadets did as they were told. “That was your midterm flying exam,” he explained.
“What?!” Johnson looked as though he were about to vomit. “Sir, this was meant to be a training exercise, not an exam-”
“The test was to escort the drone to the painted location known as the safe zone. Tanaka passed. That’s all.”
“Sir,” said Johnson. “With all due respect, that’s ridiculous. We were meant to work as a team, together, to solve the problems and get to the end-”
“It’s as Tanaka said,” said Anderson, looking at her. “The mission was to keep the drone alive. One of you did that.”
Johnson pursed his lips together, looking incredulously at Tanaka. He hated her. She knew it. She hated him too.
“Dismissed,” said Anderson. And the unit, with muttered insults, shuffled away, leaving Tanaka alone.
She glared at Anderson. “You did that on purpose,” she said. He only praised her in front of her peers. He set her on a pedestal in the sun and then flicked her off in the shadows. They all hated her, the other cadets. She didn’t play well with others and Anderson knew it. He was crushing her, slowly. How big a wedge could he drive between her and her unit? Tanaka figured he thought no one would want her as a captain by the time she graduated. But she knew he was wrong. Anderson was an active captain, and if he could do it – she glared harder – so could she.
Anderson tucked his tablet beneath his arm. “You should continue to mis-wear your uniform,” he said coldly. “It stands you far, far, apart from the crowd.”
Mila clutched the screen tightly, watching with a clenched jaw as Savannah led Einar to where half of the ground team were clustered. There, inside a building beneath what resembled a chair, were bones. Real bones from a being not of the Earth.
“Mila,” said Einar. “Are you seeing this?”
“Yes,” said Mila over comms. “Yes, I’m seeing all of it.”
Savannah handed Einar his own screen, and he scrolled through pages of data displays. “Here,” he said, pointing to two spectrograms side by side. “This is the energy signature from the ship found on Mars seventy-one years ago. The one we believe to be Atrox.” He pointed to the second spectrogram. “This is the signature from that structure, right over there.” He looked to the structure in the centre of the ruins. The one Mila called a beacon in her head.
“They’re identical,” breathed Mila. “What happened here?”
“Maybe it was left behind by the civilization that once lived here. Perhaps, it called the Atrox to assist them.”
“Maybe these were the Atrox,” said Mila.
“Difficult to say,” said Einar. “Other than the energy signature, this technology they have doesn’t match at all with Charlemagne’s previous descriptions, or with the ship found on Mars. We’ve never found biological remains before. Ever. Not even in that ship.”
“Who were these beings,” Mila wondered aloud.
“This is the first active finding of technology we’ve ever come across,” said Einar. “Everything else is dead, of course, but the fact there’s an energy reading at all is incredible. This will be explored for years to come, Mila.”
Mila didn’t know what to say. Flustered, she managed to utter a soft, “wow.”
“I’m going to close this channel for now,” said Einar, and the screen went black. “We’ll begin locking down the site for excavation. I will remain available over comms.”
“Thank you,” said Mila, and she set down the screen.
“So basically,” said Rick, now sitting across from her, “you discovered aliens.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Mila, but she allowed herself to laugh a little. “Just their remains.”
“No big deal,” said Rick, grinning. “I’ve got to know, what was your convergence point?”
“Oh,” Mila tucked her hair behind her ears. “I’m not a variant.”
Rick raised his eyebrows. “But you’re brilliant.”
“Thank you,” Mila flushed. “I took the test, but, it’s unlikely I’ll ever reach convergence. That was the verdict, anyway.” She swallowed, rubbing her palms against her pants. “I think I’m too nervous of a person. I get in my own way.”
“Right,” said Rick, sitting back. “I know I joke around, sometimes. But I honestly didn’t mean to pry like that. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” said Mila. “Sometimes I feel like I’m on the brink, that if I just pushed a little harder, focused a little more, I’d be there. But maybe that’s not what a variant is. They don’t have to think about it so much.”
“Just because Chase doesn’t appear to think much at all, doesn’t mean that’s the way it is for all of us.”
“Chase thinks a great deal,” said Mila. “But I will agree with you that there probably isn’t a singular ‘variant experience.’ Variety is the spice of life, so to speak.” She looked at Rick, wondering. “What was it like?” she asked. “Your convergence?”
“I knew it the moment it happened,” Rick began. “I know not everyone does. Some people slip into it, some are infants at the time. When I was twelve I tested variant-positive or whatever you want to call it. Convergence was likely for me. Then three years passed and, just, nothing. I was displaying hints of the variant I could be, but it was always just out of reach. And then,” he laughed a little, wringing his hands together, “and then I met Chase. I was fifteen, first year at Shi Yang, and this blonde idiot was told to fight me on his first day. I wasn’t a variant at that point, but I was the best in my class. I guess they were testing him.
“So we started fighting, and for the first time in my life, I was losing. It wasn’t just that he had the upper hand for a moment and I just needed to reposition, get my feet under me. No.” Rick pushed his hands through his hair. “I thought he was going to kill me.” He took a breath. “But I didn’t feel scared. I felt angry. I started fighting back, holding my own inside this, this unspeakable rage in the pit of my stomach. And then suddenly, it felt like I could breathe. Like my head had broken through some surface and the thing that had been holding me under there, the barrier, was gone. I pinned Chase for the first and last time that day. Walked away a variant. That was it.”
“It was Chase,” said Mila. “Chase triggered it for you.”
“I thought that for a while,” said Rick. “But I was giving him too much credit. It was me. He may have given me the push, but I swam to the surface. And I’m grateful to him for that. I’m glad he gave me the push I needed.”
“You should tell him that.”
“Not a chance.”
“Okay,” said Mila, and smiled.
Suddenly, Mila’s screen was alight beside her, beeping in quick succession. “Hang on,” said Mila, holding it in her hands. “No.” Her pulse skyrocketed. “No that’s impossible.” They’d been hacked. But how? She tried not to panic, there wasn’t any use in it, not in this moment. Mila wasn’t one to outright dismiss a coincidence, but the likelihood of being randomly targeted felt impossible. Someone needed to know about the mission to hack it, someone on the inside team or someone who’d heard about it. Mila remembered what Tanaka had said, about Rick blabbing down the academy hallways. That didn’t narrow down anything. All it took was one person to have heard him and passed it along to others for it to spread like wildfire. Who, then? Who had a motive to breach a USF ship exploring an alien planet? Maybe everyone did. Mila steadied her shaking hands, and moved to a bigger console, quickly connecting to Einar.
“I see it,” he said before she could speak.
“A breach,” said Mila, moving through files and systems across the ship’s database. A pit formed in her stomach. It felt sour, and hot. “A virus has sent our coordinates somewhere.”
“Where?” said Einar in between calling out orders to immediately get back to the ship.
“I don’t know,” said Mila. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. “It’s completely hidden.”
“This mission is compromised,” said Einar. He was speaking to the ship’s navigation team now. “Begin preparations to long warp immediately upon the ground team’s return to the Pelias.”
“What can we do?” asked Mila. She didn’t want to look at Rick. Not now.
“Remain calm,” said Einar, “but also, prepare to hold onto something. Just in case.”