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The Thule Project - Ch. V

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The Thule Project - Ch. V
by Pakkrat

V. Though there was no initial trace of the comet that had stranded the elder *Labyrinth Runner*, the space of Ceres/Thule was becoming more and more familiar to the Pakkrat. He noted the massive asteroid Ceres which greeted the awakened sleeper once more. Strangely, the rocky body featured a crater that was coated in ice, an indicator of an impact in the past.

The old nav-bouys of Ceres/Thule were still functioning, though they looked aged and neglected. They were spread across the sector in a reaching S-shape, with Ceres at the upper, spinward terminus and the other planetoid rock, presumably named Thule at the other, trailing end.

"Do you remember your entry vector to this region, Pakkrat?" asked Siobhan as if the detail were a tactical analysis of the trader's plight more than 160 years ago.

"Yeah," answered the Pakkrat who continued, " I was caught from behind by the comet's tail as I and it entered here on the coreward border." He spun the new *Labyrinth Runner* and over the course of minutes he began re-tracing his flight path through space so long ago.

"There were comet rocks hammering the hull all around," described the Pakkrat. "The first to go was the warp drive when a huge one took it offline. Then more and more systems went red. I could not out-run the comet. This entire area was thick like a cloud with ice and stone."

The Pakkrat flew on toward Ceres on impulse thrust as he had so long ago. Looking to Ceres ahead he made a connection. "The comet must have been caught by Ceres after I shut down the hauler inside a porous asteroid."

He could not say why inwardly, but he looked over his port side shoulder at Thule, the rocky planetoid. He felt like he was being watched as the hairs on his neck rose. He shrugged of the tingle and continued his flight by saying, "land of the unattainable..."

It took over an hour for the Terran to lock his targeter on the correct asteroid. It looked cracked open like a ripped sponge of black and gray minerals to get at the derelict ship it once housed. The drones had done a powerful job of gaining access to the salvage.

The site was stationary at a LaGrange point between Ceres and the Eris nav-bouy. The site's details became clearer in the Pakkrat's memory as he narrated his attempt to seek shelter here from the comet hail storm.

"....then the ship up and died on me with only batteries left," the trader finished. "I cracked open the cargo bay to let the radiation become detectable then went to sleep."

"The radiation is long gone by my sensors," announced Siobhan. "We can set down safely now that the comet is quite dead on the surface of Ceres."

The two exited after anchoring their craft to the asteroid. In spacesuits, the pair searched the icy site.

"The drones were given simple instructions to salvage the ship, but there's still debris all over here," said the Pakkrat kicking over several plates of his old ship's hull. "I just bet that there's still something here that they missed."

Siobhan merely nodded and continued searching along the depression that once housed the derelict vessel.

Being driven, Pakkrat spotted it first minutes later. It was a heavily shielded cargo container buried in pulverized ice and rock. Only a yellow-and-black hazard stripe was initially visible underneath. It took some digging and exposure to fully appreciate the size of the thing that was once hidden inside radioactive weapons-grade uranium. Depleted uranium slag surrounded the object.

It took a diamond saw to cut the frozen container latches free to open the cargo container. With her vambrace torch shining on the contents, Siobhan whistled her amazement. The two gazed a long time over the perfectly preserved items inside the huge container.

The largest and most readily recognizable object was some form of missile launcher. Of Terran make obviously during the Space Age, the weapon looked factory new. Alongside the launcher were quite a few missiles as a factory sample clearly to roll out on the red carpet. There were design schematics and even a thick brochure on the weapon. Finally, there was a laserdisc that was attached to the brochure that was only marked with black marker writing saying "Notes."

While the Pakkrat picked up the curious laserdisc, Siobhan lifted the brochure and began perusing it.

"Terran-made," said Siobhan. "InfinitiCorp presents a new horizon in weapons technology far ahead of its time." She read on aloud, "The Prototype Dark Matter Launcher Tech Level 9 promises to deliver a payload like no other."

Pakkrat stopped her by saying, "It's too heavy to lift with just the two of us. We'll have to tractor it aboard my ship. Let's gather this and have a further look away from my former grave."

Fully exposing the huge container by hand, the pair then returned to their ships. Then the huge container was lifted by tractor beam to the Pakkrat's Tradesman. While he was checking for system compatibility, Siobhan continued to read from the brochure.

"It's some sort of research and development weapon that never arrived at production," Siobhan. "It was to be produced on Earth but by this never reached the assembly line."

Pakkrat looked at the laserdisc. "'Notes', huh?" asked the trader to the object in his hands. "I just bet," he wagered to the physical datastore, "that you did not come with the intended package." He slid the laserdisc into his old player and made sure Siobhan was included. Outside the formation, the rocky planetoid Thule featured in the distance as they thrust from the old resting place asteroid.

The two watched their monitors as a Terran man with red hair became visible in the playback:

"To whomever opens this recording," began the red-haired researcher. In the background of the man was a laboratory of some Terran facility. "When the corp discovered that I was onto something.....something huge and far ahead of its true time, they wanted it. This thing is not for the likes of InfinitiCorp, nor anyone in this day and age. I don't believe I was intended to ever see this prototype tested either. It's too big for even me. I named it the 'Thule Project' because of its far-off and distant, unattainable nature. The thing should never have come to me, in my dreams. It is a weapon and is beyond anything I've ever seen in these times."
"When," continued the researcher on the recording, "the design came to me in my sleep, I knew at its completion that I had to get rid of it. It is a weapon and the strange artifact that was buried in the dark matter on the Thule asteroid should never have been unearthed. The design fitted it perfectly and still had room for two more. It was like a coincidence had found its mark. The dreams I endured from.....I don't know where or when, welcomed the ancient thing as if they were meant to work together in tandem."

The Pakkrat paused the recording to have another look at the missile launcher. In the cargo bay, he scrutinized the ammunition feed. There were three slots, cradles, or mounts for devices. One was presently occupied.

"What is it, Terran?" asked Siobhan who was apparently watching the recording.

"It's there on the launcher," answered the Pakkrat. He could see it clearly.

It was an Ancient artifact, an octahedral diamond of orange-gold metal alloy that housed or framed a large crystal of some mineral. It was inert at the moment and did not emit any light. It sat cradled by the prototype launcher in one of three slots. It lent whatever was written in its quantum-level containment in the lattice of its crystal structure to its host weapon.

Ancient artifacts, labeled 'aa' and often accompanying some odd name in an unknown language were archaeological treasures found throughout the galaxy by pilots of the Crystal Age. The Trader had no idea yet what this particular artifact was or its function, but he could guess it had something to do with augmenting the weapon. Many framed crystals like this large one had been found. Certainly not the largest the Pakkrat had ever beheld, it was in the upper echelon of the Ancient family of odd devices. Each aa-device was a treasure and priceless. The man from Earth could only guess that this one, mated to the Prototype Dark Matter Launcher was meant for compatibility to Terran technology. But its exact function was unfathomable.

"What is on the launcher?," asked Siobhan.

"Mounted to the weapon is an Ancient Artifact, Siobhan," answered the amazed man.

"That pre-dates the first discovered Ancient Artifact by," Siobhan did the quick math, "over 150 years, Terran."

"I don't think this was meant to be discovered, Warrior," speculated the trader. "I think this was sent to the researcher on purpose rather than some random find. Let's see what else he has to say." He then un-paused the recorded message by the red-haired man.

"The weapon's schematics were included, but only as an estimate of its performance. I never allowed this thing to be tested. I had little time to get rid of it. Everyone would want me to hand it over them for a bonus in pay. They'd kill to have it and the blueprints. I was thus in danger, you see. Even now, I record this message as I make my defection from the corp."

"I urge you, whomever you are, to do one thing with it." Here the researcher seemed to adopt a worried look. "The dreams. They had horrible images of something dark out of a solar system - Deneb, I think it was in the dream. Someone will bring down humanity there. Her name is Amah, a Progen I think, and she is the key. If she can be destroyed before she arrives in that dark system, humanity can be saved. I'm no prophet, but that is what I dreamed, not by my choice mind you. Destroy her and save our future. As for me, I'm leaving this dilemma as I escape to GETCo. Dr. Cuinnit Dougal out."

"So," concluded Siobhan, "this researcher, Kenneth, he dreams up and makes a weapon utilizing dark matter ammunition along with an Ancient Artifact. Then he has prophetic dreams of Amah, the most decorated Centuriata Warrior in Progen history under Anjuren Kahn, over 160 years before today."

The Pakkrat finished for the Warrior, "He and us by extension are being played."

Siobhan wrinkled her nose, "Played? Amah is no game, Pakkrat."

"No, I mean we are being manipulated by something spanning all this time. Someone is messing with us. Someone clearly really old or with a succession of accomplices." The Pakkrat rubbed his beard again in thought.

The man ran down the list of the timeline. An InfinitiCorp researcher receives a discovered deposit of dark matter, a never-before-seen Ancient Artifact and begins to have dreams of making a weapon. Realizing what he had created, Dougal then decides it was too dangerous for anyone, Jenquai, Progen and Terran. To get rid of it he sends it away. Pakkrat ran the idea to Siobhan as he continued to compile the details.

Siobhan then added her thoughts, "You then were to deliver the weapon and the device but someone else decided to try to direct you to where they could intercept you and take it. But the comet got to your hauler first."

"Finn swore he had nothing to do with it," continued the trader. "He just put the shipment inside some weapons-grade uranium and then onboard my hauler with the shielded container inside it all to hide its presence."

Seeing the logic fit together, Siobhan added, "Then you sleep 161 years, waiting for rescue. The *Warthog*, a Progen mining ship arrives and Calls your gene-map, but they too miss the weapon inside the cargo bay, seeing only the radioactive payload. Then they leave Terran space (at the time) and never admit to being there."

Pakkrat nodded. He was getting excited to finally get answers. "I get Called, Ravindran turns in my gene-map and gets his in the Gate War. I sleep it off and am rescued here in the Crystal Age by InfinitiCorp because my beacon was mysteriously reactivated. Siobhan, I think that DeWynter signed off on the rescue because she called up some record or something. She could have written me and the ship off easily."

The Progen woman answered with, "She has you rescued with an unmanned, probe mission so that nobody discovers what you supposedly have in your ship's hold. When she does not find it, she waits you out. You're the only one who knows what happened during the comet and the route you undertook." She was feeding into this and was almost excited as the Pakkrat.

"But then," said the trader, "she didn't get the package. The drones or maybe the miners aboard the *Warthog* dislodged it from the hold."

Both of them spoke at the same time. "We're being followed."

Pakkrat spoke first after noting the simultaneous, verbal intuition, "Do they know what it is?"

"Anything valuable that required smuggling and deception has to be valuable. Very valuable." Siobhan watched at the Pakkrat mounted the weapon, replacing an older missile launcher on a white wing rim of his Tradesman vessel. It looked dark, threatening and mysterious. The feed line to it looked like a serpent burrowing into the wing of the *Labyrinth Runner*.

"Who do you think we will find when we leave this sector, Ceres/Thule?" asked the Pakkrat who was looking again at the Thule planetoid as if he were being watched by some deity that was having a laugh at his expense.

"InfinitiCorp never got a look at it, but obviously knew that Dougal was working on it," said Siobhan. "Else why did he have to defect in secret? Perhaps GETCo took him in because they could tell he was running and had something to hide."

The trader considered a moment, "I bet he didn't tell them what he was working on, but they could tell he was working on something big,"

"Then there were the dreams to start him off," reminded the Warrior. "Who was it that implanted him with such sleep-telepathy? Surely the Terran Psis of the times could not have. They were to little known before the Psionic Suppressions to do something like have InfinitiCorp make them a weapon."

The Progen had some lessons in history, a history the Pakkrat had slept through. "Ancients maybe?" It was a shot in the dark Pakkrat took to make such a guess.

Siobhan tilted her head. "Legends and more strangeness. Let us not blow this out of proportion. Yet, something prompted your diversion to this route that incapacitated your ship. I believe we may be dealing with a competitor entity that coveted the weapon. Ancients? Doubtful, Terran."

Soon, the star gate to Venus sector returned to view. Pakkrat had purposefully taken his time at impulse speeds in hopes someone else would enter Ceres/Thule, thus exposing themselves as having followed the pair to this sector. None were present when they arrived at the gate.

"Anything could happen on the far side of this gate, Siobhan," speculated the Terran.

"Then let us prepare for the worst possibility," agreed the Warrior. Then both prepared their vessels for potential conflict once they emerged from gating.

* * *

*When asked if she wanted the **Andromeda** to enter Ceres/Thule after the employee and his Centuriata escort, Lady Isabel DeWynter opted to stay in Venus sector.*

*"If the Pakkrat sees the gate rings start to spin on his end of the gate," explained the Lady, "he will know he was followed and will bolt. I want to watch this next segment. Rig for full stealth and I want scanner telemetry recordings."*

*"Yes, Mistress," acknowledged the Progen female, Joga.*

The black capital ship in quietus watched from Venus orbit as a small group of the crimson-hulled Red Dragon Dai Lo pirates lay in wait within scan range of the star gate. Signals were eavesdropped as the pirates made plans to liberate any good finds from the pair that had entered Ceres/Thule hours ago. They meant by their eagerness to turn in anything of value to the Tongs and no one would believe that the finds came from the long abandoned sector and route.

The Red Dragon ships must have seen from afar the opening of the dormant gate and decided investigate apart from their usual clashes with their chief rival pirates, the Chavez in Venus sector. They were intent on robbing whomever re-emerged from Ceres/Thule.

Bridge crew were silently making wagers on the InfinitiCorp Tradesman, paired with the Centuriata Warrior when pitted against six of the Dai Lo Tong of the Red Dragon. Their captain ignored them to observe the eventual encounter.

To the COO of InfinitiCorp, the battle that ensued when the Pakkrat refused to surrender to the pirates was nothing impressing. The Warrior with him did most of the fighting as was their kind's way. He, being the most peaceful pawn on the board did little more than try to talk his way out of the situation even after guns on both sides started blazing. The Tradesman even tried to Befriend the Tong with gestures of payment for passage from Venus sector. This did little as the pirates took the gestures for weakness and that he was indeed carrying some imagined treasure beyond any bribe.

The Praefect took point in their formation as the Tong swarmed about them, trying to cut off any escape. Only once was the Tradesman forced to use its widely-touted system to lend energy to another vessel in a shields recharging action. The Warrior, though bulwarked thusly, broke no stride in her stream of DigiApogee Prototype explosive head projectile ammunition. She merely swung the streaming arc of ordinance to the next pirate.

More of the Dai Lo Tong arrived and turned the tide on the pair. It would be a battle of numbers versus the Pakkrat's reactor capacity. The red hulls of the pirates would eventually incapacitate the Warrior and then turn on the weakened Tradesman. It was only a matter of time.

The InfinitiCorp leader bristled at the idea of emerging from stealth to help the employee and hotly denied the verbalized idea with a scowl. Let the Pakkrat dig himself out of the encounter. Rats excelled at living through harsh conditions.

Then something humorous happened. The Pakkrat had purposefully allowed his shields to be penetrated and a Tong missile ripped open a section of his cargo bay. Tiny objects began spewing in a small cloud about the pair. Then sensors indicated that the Pakkrat's reactor had somehow received a second wind. He fired once at the un-touched Red Dragon that had shot his vessel. It was a missile, single and with a thrust trail that was violet-to-ultraviolet black. The missile silently covered the distance to the pristine red hull of the pirate.

There was no visible report on the target's shield. The dark ordinance passed directly though and landed a direct hit. Telemetry, replayed later, would reveal that the pirate's shield failed to register or acknowledge the incoming missile, ignoring it as a threat entirely. The Red Dragon Dai Lo vessel was destroyed in a single hit by the strange weapon as it was taken down by a type of damage never before recorded. The Pakkrat had landed a blow through full shielding onto the target hull and the warhead overpowered the vessel's structure entirely. Its explosion was easy to see even from their position over Venus.

Then the pirates were screaming to each other over communications that the tiny objects in a debris cloud were their coveted Mahjong game tiles. They instantly forgot the pair, forgot the one-shot-kill of their comrade and all pirates immediately started scooping up the tiles with hungry and individual tractor beams. They then assumed that this was the 'treasure' taken from Ceres/Thule, the sector the pair had emerged. But the Lady knew better. She immediately demanded of her crew the recording of the weapon that the Pakkrat had utilized. This was for her and her secretary's eyes only. This was the treasure of Thule! A perfect weapon if the telemetry was to be believed.

The Lady ordered the *Andromeda* to follow the pair which had warped away from the chaotic looting pirates. But rather than escape to the safety of Asteroid Belt Beta and its SolSec neutrality, the pair veered off to the distant gate to Mercury sector, the closest planet to Sol's primary. It was a curious path and the Lady quietly wondered at the Pakkrat's decision-making.

Mercury was the general territory of the Good Earth Trading Company, or GETCo for short. The only facility of note was StarClipper Station. Perhaps the two meant to acquire repairs there. But for the InfinitiCorp capital ship, it would have to run silent a while longer as it trailed the Pakkrat.

* * *

"Why did we leave?" asked Siobhan to the Pakkrat in the lead position. "We could have taken them. Did you not see what that missile did to them?"

The Pakkrat, again freewarping to arrive at the sector gate to Mercury responded as he transmitted the request to the gate's opening, "I have less than a stack of this ammunition and I only fired it on reflex when he opened my hull."

Siobhan suspected a half-lie from the Terran. The Merchant Prince must have had more reason than that to do what he did. "Then you did not mean to fight them at all. Why did you not tell me that was your intent when we gated to Venus?"

"I don't think we were alone," answered the Pakkrat. "I can't explain it but ever since seeing Thule, I've been suffering someone walking on my grave."

"But you are not dead, Terran."

"No-," the trader had to stop and explain, "I was getting intuitive feelings of being spied on."

"I think I now see your strange saying," said the Warrior. "The pirates were not the only enemies?"

"I can't say for sure," mumbled the Pakkrat then raising his voice, "but we were wasting time with the pirates. I let them hit me and take the tiles. I told you I had a good stack or more of them collecting dust. It was enough, is all, to get us out of there."

Some time later, after reaching the far gate to Mercury sector, the two gated there and travelled onward to StarClipper Station. Like Aragoth Station, the research facility near the planet Mercury was heavily shielded with large, treated metal plates used as a deflector for the incoming solar radiation winds. The station here was Terran in design where Aragoth Station was largely a Jenquai construction. Hosted and sponsored by GETCo, the Trader and the Warrior were greeted by automatic welcome messages from the company as they docked.

Detecting the hull damage to the *Labyrinth Runner*, station repair robots immediately swarmed the ship to assess damage and conduct repairs. This would of course deduct a fair amount from the Trader's credit account. The Merchant Prince sighed every time his earned finances took a hit. It was almost personal between the Pakkrat and the rest of the universe.

Inside the facility's main lobby, the station was divided between those researchers, technicians, station crew, and a news desk affiliate of Net-7 News. The pair made way inside. All about were busy people, going on about their tasks, duties, projects, and the press was ever present, yearning for a scoop.

While Siobhan split off to a manufacturing terminal to assemble ammunition for her ship's weapons, the Pakkrat went to the lounge to use the network terminal. An attendant from the hosting company greeted him.

"Welcome to GETCo's StarClipper station," the woman in a business suit said with a corporate smile.

"Hi there," returned the trader. "I need help finding an employee of GETCo."

"Is he here aboard the station perhaps?" asked the employee lady.

"I doubt it," answered the Pakkrat. "He said he was joining GETCo to continue his life's work."

The attendant stepped up to the net terminal to cycle a few menus. "Do know the name of this employee?"

"Yes," said the man from Earth hopefully. "His name was Doctor Cuinnit Dougal and he was in research in development when he left his old job."

"Was?" noted the attendant more as a statement than a question. "Let's see," she said as the scrolled through rosters on the holographic display with her hands.

Soon, the woman had the name up and called the file on a separate display. There was the red-haired man from the old laserdisc. He looked a little worse for the wear to the Pakkrat's eyes. There was a nervousness to his demeanor in the image.
"Seems that this Dr. Dougal came to work for GETCo over 150 years ago, sir," noted the lady. "I think you are a bit late to meet with him. It says here that he disappeared from his job and was suspected of stealing GETCo property. Authorities tracked his movements but never apprehended the researcher when he escaped aboard an outbound Freespacer Void-liner to the deep reaches. This of course was back before the discovery of Akeron's Gate. Whereabouts unknown. End of file."

The Pakkrat rubbed his beard again in thought before asking, "Any idea what was stolen?"

"There is no listing but given the priority of the doctor's capture, I could guess that he either made off with something very valuable or a lot of something not-so-valuable." The attendant then turned on the trader. "You are from InfinitiCorp, right?"

"Yes," answered the Pakkrat. "Why?"

"Aren't you that guy that IC rescued a couple of years back from a derelict ship?" The woman was scrutinizing the Pakkrat now.

"Yeah and the insurance money is still held up in courts," said the Pakkrat, "Thank you for your help, ma'am. I have to go now." He left the attendant promptly. It felt good but not good enough that he was remembered by anyone who was watching the news at the time of his awakening from that coma. Yet after the search for Dr. Dougal, the Pakkrat felt like a corporate spy now. Hastily, he made way back to the hangar where Siobhan was overseeing the last of her ordinance loaded into the cargo bay of the *Kitten*.

Siobhan saw the trader's imperative step toward her and asked at his arrival, "What did you learn?"

Pakkrat cleared his throat nervously, "Dougal went to work for GETCo and by the look of it got into trouble with them too. He took a one-way ticket on one of those old Freespacer Void-liner ships into exile when it was discovered that he had stolen something from them. Something big in the way of expensive."

"He may have had the item with him when he escaped," conjectured the Warrior. The last of the ammunition was loaded. The pair then entered their respective ships and began to undock.

"But back in my day," explained the Pakkrat, "the Freespacers didn't have any stargates. They did things the slow and hard way."

"We will have to ask some Freespacers then," said Siobhan, "perhaps at one of their gathering places. I hear they do so every so often to have a moot-meeting of their families."

"Have any ideas where they gather?"

"Just one. Let's go."

Siobhan moved to assume the formation's lead position, but the Pakkrat stopped her. "I'm driving. This is important." The Progen woman seemed mildly surprised, yet she let the Terran man lead.

Siobhan locked navigation computers with the Pakkrat's and said, "To Jotunheim then." Then she sat back and let him drive. The two shot from the blaze of the sun.

Rather than backtrack, the Pakkrat took formation forward, beyond StarClipper Station to the sector gate to Pluto and Charon on the edge of the Sol system. Again the trader from Terra freewarped in a direct line across the sector, cutting as much time off the journey as possible.

* * *

*"They just left StarClipper Station, Mistress," reported Joga to her Lady DeWynter, "but they took the back route to Pluto and Charon sector."*

* DeWynter smiled. "Of course he would," she said. "He wants out of Sol before anyone learns of what he has on his wing. Follow him, but let's stay as quiet as possible. I want to see how GETCo came into this. He didn't just dock here for repairs or else he'd have left already."*

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