First of all, thank you for taking the time to check out The Descent. Originally written for a sci-fi challenge that limited the word count to 2,000 words, what you are about to read is a re-write of the original story. I felt all along that this story needed to be longer. There was more to know about the characters, the setting and so on.
As of right now, this story is limited to four chapters and stands on its own as a short story. The story goes on, of course, but where it ends is still up in the air. I have started working on an outline for the rest but an ETA for that is not know at this time. So, until then I hope you will enjoy reading the four chapters that are available. They'll be published with a few days in between each chapter so expect it to take a couple of weeks for them to all be online.
I'd love to know what you think so don't hesitate to drop me a note.
Thanks again for reading,
Chapter 1 - The Discovery
Denton Staxx leaned back in his chair, his feet comfortably propped up on the corner of his desk. A half-eaten sandwich awaited its fate in his right hand. Engrossed in the Olympic broadcast, he hesitated when he heard the initial chirp in his ear. He knew what it meant. He had received a new assignment, a new case. Was it important? Would it need his immediate attention? With his eyes glued to the screen, he couldn't care less. He acknowledged receipt of the case by tapping an area just behind his left ear. The assignment system would mark the case as received and if he was lucky, it wasn't important.
His attention returned to the holographic broadcast hovering over his desk. The commentators were arguing back and forth about what to expect this year. It was, after all, the first time humans from Earth would participate in The Descent. Could they adapt to conditions that were different than what they were used to on Earth? Would the differences in gravity between Earth and Proxima B affect them? Would the proximity of Proxima B's star be a distraction? The Descent was, after all, the highlight of the Interplanetary Olympic Games.
Denton usually paid little attention to sports. In fact, he hadn't watched any of the other events of the Olympic Games. He had heard that some of the athletes from Earth had struggled with the Twilight Marathon. Spread out over three days, it was one of the most challenging events of the Olympics. The contestants spent a day in each of the three distinct geographical zones of Proxima B. In the northern frozen zone, they had to navigate snow, ice and subzero temperatures as they ran with heavy winter gear. The following day, they ran through the temperate twilight zone. They started in the Shadowlands on the northern edge and worked their way through the various temperate areas rich in vegetation and wildlife. The last day took them through a variety of obstacles in the southern desert-like Wastelands. Denton had heard that he Earthlings were able to keep up most of the time but some had dropped out from exhaustion. The rumors were that the extreme temperature variations were to blame.
To Denton, The Descent was the only event that mattered. He leaned forward with anticipation as the commentators shifted their attention to the Descent Pods. The official reveal was just minutes away. It would be the viewer's first taste of what to expect during the race and, more importantly, a first glimpse of the unique design of each pod.
A double-chirp in the notification module implanted behind his ear interrupted his focus. He grunted and ran his hands through his hair as he leaned back in his chair. A double-chirp meant the case was a matter of urgency. Most likely, it required his immediate attention. He sighed, put down his sandwich and acknowledged the notification. Continued ignorance of the case would only draw attention. A personal visit from the Captain in the middle of the Pod Reveal would be hard to explain away. Not that it mattered. He'd have to watch it later now anyway.
He swept the broadcast to the side of his desk. With a flick of a finger, he initiated the recording functionality. The Pods would have to wait. The half-eaten sandwich ended up in the trash and he swiftly collected the papers about The Descent strewn across the desk into a pile and shoved them into a drawer. The Captain wouldn't be fond of his divided attention if he made a surprise visit. Not to mention the uproar over the wasted paper.
Moments later, the case file hovered in front of him. The collection of files that made up the case file included a variety of documents. Several documents were filled with technical jargon outside of his area of expertise. He saw circuit board drawings and 3D models of various components. There was also what appeared to be a single, small executable file. He sighed and opened the case brief document. He was about to start reading when an incoming call interrupted. The Captain's head swept away the files hovering in front of him.
"Have you read the file yet?" he asked without greeting Denton.
Denton threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes.
"Sir, I literally just opened the case brief. "
"So what's the plan?"
"The plan? I haven't read the brief yet."
"Staxx, you do realize this is important? "
"Of course, sir. I'll get right on it."
"Good. I need results, quickly. The Colonel wants answers."
The Captain vanished and the case files moved back to their original place in front of Denton. He shook his head. The Colonel. He always wanted answers before the was any practical way to provide any. Even he should understand that hounding his best case officer just seconds after he was assigned to help wasn't going to solve the case any quicker.
He returned his attention to the case brief and started reading. Something about a software patch, over-the-air, autonomous. Servers and clients. Then, there was navigational data and more technical jargon. He grunted and scrolled through to the last page. Who had written this document? Tanner? The IT analyst? Seriously?
He closed the document and called Tanner. He had some explaining to do. Moments later, the holographic head of Tanner appeared above Denton's desk.
"Tanner," the analyst answered. Before Denton could open his mouth, Tanner looked away, took his glasses off and wiped them off with a cloth. Denton smiled. Tanner was trying to annoy him. He must have been expecting the call. He had been in enough briefings with Tanner to recognize his unique habits.
"Mr. Staxx," Tanner responded as he put his glasses back on his nose. Why Tanner bothered with these ancient contraptions Denton had never understood.
"How can I help you?" Tanner continued, visibly irritated by the interruption.
"Tanner, did you write this case brief?" Denton said as he pulled the brief into view.
"You have to be more specific than that, Staxx. I'm not psychic."
Denton gave him the case number.
"Yes, yes, of course, I did. I'm the only one here that could possibly understand that one. It's a software patch."
"Well, you do know what a software patch is, right?" Tanner said as he peered at Denton over the rim of his glasses.
"Of course I do, I'm not stupid."
"Of course not," Tanners said and smirked. "Look, I'm kind of busy here with the Olympics going on and all. The Captain's got me verifying background checks. Important stuff." Tanner rolled his eyes.
"The background checks will have to wait. The Colonel wants results yesterday on this one. It's a Class I case."
Tanner suddenly perked up. "Class I? It didn't seem like that big of a deal when it came through."
"Well, apparently it's of Interplanetary security importance."
"Yes, yes, of course, that's what Class I means. I know."
"So what does it mean? Your brief, I can't understand any of it. Haven't we been over this before, about writing briefs that non-technical personnel can actually understand? I'll have more chirps in my ear here in a minute if I'm not moving fast enough."
Tanner ignored his comment and pointed to the brief floating in the air in front of both of them. "Like I said, it's a software patch. It's not specific to any device that I've seen before. The code gives some clues but nothing definite."
"Like what? Talk to me, Tanner."
"Well, it seems to be for some sort of navigational system. The patch changes navigational parameters once it's executed. The destination coordinates in the target system are modified to those within the patch."
Denton flipped through the brief. "I don't see the coordinates in here."
"They're in the appendix, with the translation of the code and schematics."
Denton was about to argue about putting the important information in the case brief but changed his mind.
"Can you pull them up? Please?"
"Sure." Tanner shifted his attention away from Denton. Moments later, a map of the planet appeared in front of Denton instead of Tanner. "Umm, let me see. Ah, here, let's see what the new destination is."
The map in front of Denton shifted and zoomed in towards the surface of the planet. He had to look away momentarily to avoid the nausea that always surfaced when Tanner showed off his holomap. He had a feeling Tanner knew about his discomfort and use the zoom function on purpose.
Moments later, he found himself looking at the Olympic Stadium on the surface. He frowned. Why would the Olympic Stadium be the new destination?
"Tanner, can you take us to the original coordinates?"
"Sure." Tanner again did something Denton couldn't see and the map zoomed out and then back in. The landscape had changed to that of a random desert location. The desert? Who in their right mind would want to land in the desert?
A preview of the upcoming Descent caught Denton's attention. It showed the Descent Pods leaving their stations in space, rushing towards Proxima B's surface and landing at their desert destinations. The desert. It was the destination of the Descent pods. Denton felt the color of his face drain.
Chapter 2 - Breakthrough
Tanner, in the middle of an extensive monolog about navigational systems, realized that Denton wasn't paying attention and stopped mid-sentence.
"Hey, Denton, are you still listening?"
"I think I know what the coordinates are for."
Tanner's holographic image appeared to lean closer. "I'm listening."
Denton ignored him and pulled up a map of the Descent tracks. He overlayed the map with the coordinates Tanner had found. They were close but not an exact match.
"The desert destination, I'm pretty sure it's the landing zone for the Descent pods."
"The Descent pods? Really? I didn't realize they landed in the desert."
"Safety reasons. If anything ever happened, a high-speed impact would be a disaster."
The color of Tanner's face changed. "So, the new coordinates are aimed right at the crowds..."
"That's right. The casualties would be catastrophic."
They both sat in silence for a few moments taking in the imminent disaster brewing before their eyes.
"Tanner, we have to figure out which pod this patch is for. Can you get the official routes for all the pods and compare them to the desert coordinates?"
"Each pod has a different route. Another safety feature. If one fails or ends up with a problem, a crash wouldn't endanger the landing zones of the others."
"Alright, alright. Give me a sec."
With Tanner silent and focused on finding the data they needed, Denton left his desk and walked over to the observation window in his office. Although his office assignment wasn't what he had requested, the view wasn't terrible. Sure, he didn't have the greatest view of Proxima B, but he could see the Descent Hub in the distance. Somewhere in there, in the middle of preparing for one of the most dangerous sporting events in the universe, one of the pods had been sabotaged. A pod racer was in danger. One of them would impact with the planet's surface within the Olympic Stadium and not land at its designated landing zone in the desert. He shook his head. It would cause havoc.
Denton had a hard time understanding who might want to cause such a disaster. What was the point? What could there possibly be to gain from killing hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people who only wanted to have a good time and enjoy the games? Maybe that was the point. There was no articulated reason, just chaos for the sake of chaos.
"Ok, here we go," Tanner said. "I've compared all the official pod routes to the coordinates in the patch. There's only one that's the same."
"And it is?"
"The Vanquisher? Are you sure?"
"Am I sure? Of course, I'm sure. I did a cross-reference search in the code of the patch, and I found an abbreviation of The Vanquisher name embedded in the code. VNQSHR. I'm sure."
The Vanquisher. Denton felt a chill run down his spine. Not only was The Vanquisher the most popular pod on Proxima B, but it was also piloted by one of the best pod racers on the planet. No, the universe. Jarell Osprey. Although he had never met him, he felt as though he knew him as a friend. Obsessive was a word his friends threw around whenever Jarell and The Vanquisher came up in a discussion.
The continuing Olympic commentary suddenly caught his attention. The fifteen-minute countdown had started. The racers had to be in their pods, strapped in and ready to deploy at the fifteen*-minute mark or they would be disqualified. It was almost mini-race before the race. Once the racers entered the pods, they hatch for each pod would be sealed until the race was complete. No access was allowed. Cutting off access also meant that Denton only had fifteen minutes to stop the disaster.
He closed all the files on his desktop and transferred the call with Tanner to his mobile communicator. He picked up his uniform jacket and ran out the door.
"Tanner, I'm heading over to the Descent Hub."
Tanner gazed at Denton over the rims of his glasses. "The Vanquisher?"
"What else?" Denton said as he ran towards the elevator. He barely made it in. He overrode the direction the elevator was traveling with his credentials over the objections of the other passengers and tapped the button for the transit center.
"Sorry folks," he said as he held up his badge, "It's an emergency. Tanner?"
"Freeze the VIP shuttles."
"What, wait, the VIP shuttles? Why not use our own?"
"Because the VIP shuttles have extreme speed modules. They're faster than ours. Unofficially of course. Just do it, alright?"
"And you know this how?"
"Just do it."
The elevator came to a stop at the main platform of the transit center fifteen seconds later. Denton burst through the door and ran towards the VIP platform. He squeezed between people that had just arrived and those that were heading back to their hab modules after a day out. As shopping bags flew up in the air in his wake, he shouted apologies over his shoulder.
He turned a corner closer to the departure and arrival platforms and ran right into two security bots. He threw one off balance and sent the second one spinning on the floor while he struggled to stay on his feet. He ignored the bots and their requests to stop and continued to run.
"Tanner?" he said between breaths.
"24. 24. Got it, thanks, Tanner," he said as he spotted the entrance to Bay 24. "Get out of my way," he shouted as he ran through a small crowd waiting on the platform next to the shuttle.
"Hey, man, what's the deal?" a tall man with a long beard and pointy blue hair said, pointing a finger right at Denton. "This is my pod."
"Not anymore, it's not," Denton said as he flashed his credentials. "Take the next one," he shouted over his shoulder as he entered the pod.
Denton slammed the hatch using the emergency closure mechanism and made his way through several rows of comfortable chairs to the flight deck. Or, what the shuttle pilots called flight deck. The shuttle itself was, of course, nothing but a glorified bus and the person responsible for propulsion hardly classified as a pilot. Except maybe for the VIP shuttles with unofficial mods. They often required a little bit more skill than just accelerate and decelerate.
"How do I override the controls on this thing?"
"Just a sec."
A few seconds later, the control panel came to life. Denton tapped a few buttons on the dashboard, and the shuttle started to move. Slowly, at first, while the shuttle was still within the superstructure of the hub but once clear, the shuttle picked up speed. Denton, satisfied that they were moving, changed the destination to that of the Descent Hub, bypassing all other scheduled stops.
"Tanner, connect me to the tech lead at The Vanquisher pits."
While Denton waited for the call to go through, he had a priceless view of the planet. The shuttle traveled along the spine of the habitable zone of Proxima B on one of many orbital tracks that stretched between the various orbital hubs. His team was stationed at the central hub of the whole orbital complex. The orbital residents often congregated there for parties, shopping and other forms of entertainment. It was the perfect spot to have an office for the Orbital Secret Service, right in the middle of all the human intelligence in orbit. Any rumor worth its salt was whispered in the hallways below his office.
Denton zipped by multiple hab modules on his way over to the Descent Pod. Not much different than apartments in the cities on the surface, those with the views of the planets were usually those with the most credits in their bank accounts. Denton himself had a comfortable hab, even though his view was of the darkness of space and the occasional moon or sister planet that were brought into view by their revolving orbits. He saw Proxima B every day. He welcomed a break during his tie off.
To see the planet fly by in what seemed slow motion was something Denton never grew tired of. He could see both the southern desert and the frozen north as he traveled parallel with the border zones of each area. Directly beneath him, the green, habitable area of the planet.
As the shuttle traveled further up the orbital ring, mountain ranges, rivers and other geographical features that he was all too familiar with came into view and then disappeared behind him. Interspersed throughout the landscape were the cities, big and small. He smiled. It was beautiful. Although the rarely made it down to the surface these days, it was still his home.
"Denton, I can't get through to the Descent Hub at all. Voice comms are down."
"Down? That shouldn't be possible."
"Yeah, I'm getting nothing."
"Try the emergency frequency."
"Already did. Zip."
Denton looked out the window of the shuttle towards the approaching Descent hub. It was getting closer every minute. From his perspective, everything seemed to be in order. The hub itself didn't seem to be structurally compromised, at least.
"Is the Olympic broadcast still going?"
"Yes, it is. Live from the hub."
"Tanner, where did this patch come from in the first place?"
"The patch? Umm, I think it was a diplomatic intercept."
"A diplomatic intercept? Since when are were monitoring diplomatic traffic?"
"Are you kidding? With the Olympics, we look at everything. It helps that officially, you know, we don't exist."
Denton rolled his eyes. He knew that Tanner relished working in the shadows as if he was some secret agent.
"What was the source of the wire the patch came through on?"
"Earth? You're telling me the Earthlings are trying to sabotage the race?"
"No, not necessarily. It would seem that way but remember, anyone could have sent it from Earth. That doesn't mean Earth wants to sabotage the race."
"Tanner, don't be naive. It's not a secret that some of them don't exactly approve of the Descent. I know some of them have called it too extreme."
"Still, Denton, you're making them all extremists. You can't label them all terrorists just because there are a few bad apples."
Tanner was wrong. Denton knew it. Alright, maybe they weren't all terrorists, but he did know for a fact that one faction of the Olympic Committee from Earth had objected to including an event they couldn't properly train for. Something about the facilities they had around Earth not quite being up to par with those around Proxima B. It just wouldn't be fair. Denton wasn't sure how the event eventually made it into the Olympics, but an agreement must have been made to include it. The rebellious faction had been overruled for the sake of interplanetary political correctness. Fantastic.
"Tanner, how hard is it to reprogram the patch?" Denton asked as he willed the shuttle to move even faster.
"That's not a problem. Getting it over to the pod is the tricky part. With no comms channels open, I can't exactly send it over there."
"Can't you hijack the broadcast signal or something? Hack your way in that way?"
Tanner coughed and looked away for a moment. Denton thought he saw a blush on his cheeks but decided not to push it.
"Of course I can," Tanner said. "I was just about to suggest that."
"Ok good. Do it and send it over to me. I'll relay it through the hub system once I get there. Just hurry, alright? They shut the pods in just a few minutes."
Moments later, the shuttle pulled into the transit center of the Descent hub. Denton exited the shuttle and ran through the crowds. Angry voices rose up behind him, but he ignored them. He followed the signs to the depot areas of the pod teams. He was just about to enter through a restricted door when someone grabbed his arm.
"Sorry, pal, that's restricted. Authorized personnel only."
Denton flashed his badge. "It's a matter of interplanetary security. Let me through."
The guard scanned his badge, furrowed his eyebrows and looked back at Denton.
"Orbital Security Service? Are you kidding me? You think I'm an idiot?" the guard said and took a step towards Denton.
"Just run it through, alright?" Denton knew it would only take a second and although it might not answer the guard's questions, he would be forced to let him pass.
The guard looked at Denton suspiciously and then ran the verification. The result startled him, and his eyes went from the terminal screen to Denton and back a couple of times.
"Uh, alright, sir, my apologies. Go on through."
Denton thanked the guard and rushed through the doors. He asked the first person he saw where The Vanquisher team had set up shop and then ran as quickly as he could through the crowd of dignitaries and celebrities, all there to try to outshine each other. Out of breath, he ran into the depot of The Vanquisher team and asked for the tech lead. A dark-haired woman approached him, apparently annoyed at the interruption. He flashed his credentials, which she ignored.
"I'm Gabi, the tech lead. This better be good. The race is starting in just a few minutes, and I'm swamped."
"The Vanquisher has been compromised," he said. "You need to stop the race."
Gabi looked at him for a few seconds before she answered. "That's not going to happen. They just shut the hatches. Ready or not, the pods are launching."