tactical-advantage“There,” I said, stabbing my finger at a dark circle on the landscape just outside the city. “That’s where they’re keeping the SM5.”

The map on the holographic display over the workstation shuddered. Colors flared and then smoothed out again.

Dada leaned in and squinted at the detail on the display – it was no more than a black spot on a white plain, but he appeared to need to get a closer look.

“You think that’s where they’re housing the remains of your ship?” he said.

I nodded. “They certainly didn’t bring something of that size into the city. They had to house it in an external storage facility. There’s no communication line running into that position, yet there is a large, regular security detail posted there at all times. The data we’ve been able to pull from their feeds show that Sar himself controls all access. No one gets in without Sar leading them.”

Parker spoke up from the workstation next to us. As Ghia was sleeping in the corner, he and Pili had been quietly dismantling all of our weapons. They were cleaning and making much-needed repairs. “What makes you so sure they didn’t bring it in to some Central Ring lab and start tearing it apart? It’s what I would do,” he said.

Dada raised and eyebrow to me.

“They didn’t need it,” said Marianne’s voice from below.

I stepped back from the massive stone head that I’d been using at a work table. Marianne was sitting with her back against the base of the carving, drawing a picture on a scrap of paper.

“That’s right,” I said. “They didn’t need it.”

Marianne held up what she was working on. The drawing was of two figures standing together before the entrance to a strange stone temple. The edifice of the temple was engulfed in thick branches that crawled across the surface, as if held firm by some greedy wood spirit. I nodded, impressed.

Dada didn’t get it. “They don’t need the spaceship from the future?”

“No, they don’t,” I said. “Look around. This whole city – and everything in it – was engineered with advanced technology. I have to assume that Spegg came back much the same way I did – in a ship. He probably arrived in a survival pod that was jettisoned from the SM5 itself.”

“A life pod does not a city make,” said Parker.

“True,” I said quickly. “But Spegg had access to a precious piece of technology – an immensely potent, gold-film, lightweight, computing system with an advanced holographic display. When it’s inactive, it usually takes the shape of a scroll. Ever seen him with something like that in hand?”

Parker let out a huff. “What are you talking about? We’ve never seen Spegg at all. That little monster stays hidden at all times.”

I thought back to the SM5 crash site outside the far city gates. The nose of the ship – all that was left after re-entry – collided with a massive bronze statue of Spegg and his accomplices. Spegg was probably pretty upset about that offense.

“Hold on,” said Dada. “What’s in this computer scroll?”

I thought about it for a moment. “It’s fairly comprehensive. Two-hundred years of history, science, technology, medicine, space travel, engineering, weaponry… everything.”

“So, we need to break out of the Fifth Ring gates and get into the highly-secured facility that houses your ship?” said Dada eagerly.

“Yes. This is one of the reasons we cut into their fiber lines. Initially, I wanted to see where the LMO activity was clustered so that we could predict their movements.”

“So we know where they’re patrolling,” Dada said.

“Exactly. But I also wanted to see what they were protecting.”

“There’s nothing out in the Fifth Ring to protect,” said Parker.

“You’d think not.”

Parker gave me a dumbfounded stare.

“Because, after all this time, there are only three things in the Fifth Ring that are worth safeguarding.”

“Maxim, the remains of Maxim’s ship, and me,” said Marianne in a voice that was strangely animated.

Parker let his jaw hang open. He looked at Pili – and the big man only gave him a confused shrug of the shoulders.

“Okay,” said Dada slowly. He appeared to be letting an idea play around in his head. “What do we expect to salvage from your old, crashed-up wreck of a ship – one of these golden computers, right?”

“No. I doubt very seriously that they’ve left anything that significant in Sar’s hands. What I expect to find in the SM5 is no more than raw materials, components, perhaps some minor technology.”

Parker was nodding already. “You think you can put together something of significance from odds and ends, yes?”

“Yeah, I do. You first have to understand that all of the technology components from my era have a symbiotic relationship with each other. A handful of advanced components may allow us to reach out to some openly-receptive systems, go around their fortifications, tap a little deeper.”

Dada was lost in thought. “Maxim, this idea of yours may give us a tactical advantage, but the notion that we can leave the city and break into a secure location without tripping every boundary sensor is fatally flawed,” he said.

“Then the only solution –” I began.

“Is to have them bring what we want directly to us,” said Marianne, completing my thought.

“You may have something there,” I said.

Dada gave us both a bewildered stare. He twitched and shook his head. “Remind me again, please. Which of you two is the brilliant savior for our little team?”

Parker burst out laughing. Even Pili managed a soft chuckle.

Ghia, who had been curled up in her sleeping gear after a long night watch, rustled out with a groan.

“Why can’t you people keep the noise down?” she said. When she was tired, her accent was warm and murky.

“Sorry,” Dada said. “We’re working through an opportunity for a tactical advantage. Marianne is helping.”

Ghia put one hand on her hip and worked some fingers through her hair. “I’ll bet she is.” She kneeled down to Marianne. “When was the last time you got any sleep?”

“I don’t really have to.”

Ghia groaned. “Maybe I should give you a rifle and let you stand watch all night.”

“Okay by me.” Marianne smiled and went back to work on her drawing.

Ghia cocked her head and gave the strange picture a puzzled stare. “I’ve never seen this place before. Who are these people supposed to be?”

“It’s Maxim and you,” Marianne said with a smile, handing the drawing over to her aunt.

Ghia held the drawing away from her and strained to make sense of the scene. “That’s impossible.”

“Why is that impossible?” Marianne said, scrunching up her nose.

I lifted my head and leaned over for the reply.

“Because we look happy with each other,” Ghia said.

Marianne replied with only a muted giggle and went back to drawing.

[Communication Relay:  13MAR2087 Alexander Island, Antarctica]