Denton Staxx sat at his desk, engrossed in the latest commentary from the Interplanetary Olympic games when a chirp in his ear notified him that a new case had been assigned to him. He tapped an area just behind his ear to acknowledge receipt. His attention drifted back to the holographic commentators hovering just inches above his desk. They were just about to get to the good part. The reveal of the Descent Pods.
The Descent was the highlight of the IOG. Although events like the Twilight Marathon pushed the contestants to the limits, Denton knew that the Descent was far more taxing than a spring from the southern desert to the northern ice caps.
The double chirp inside his ear that followed thirty seconds later meant that the case was a matter of urgency and required his immediate attention. He sighed and acknowledged the notification. His continued ignorance of the case would only draw attention and that was something he didn’t need.
He swept the broadcast to the side of his desk and opened up the case file. Several technical documents appear, filled with technical jargon that was outside of his area of expertise. Several circuit board schematics were included. Frustrated, he made a video call to the department IT analyst.
“Hey, Tanner, you busy?” Denton said after the customary greeting.
Tanner laughed. “Are kidding? I’m buried up to here,” he said as he stretched his hand as far above his head as he could. “These games are killing me.”
“Sorry to have to add to the workload but I really need your help.”
“That’s what everyone says.”
“It’s a Class 1 case.”
Tanner suddenly perked up. “Class 1? Why didn’t you say so already? That’s enough of an excuse to avoid all these background checks. What’s the problem?”
Denton gave him the case number and waited as he pulled up the relevant documents.
“This,” Denton said and pointed to the documents floating in the air in front of him, “Is apparently of interplanetary security importance. I just can’t understand any of it and I’ll have more chirps in my ear here in a minute if I’m not moving along fast enough.”
“Is apparently of interplanetary security importance. I just can’t understand any of it and I’ll have more chirps in my ear here in a minute if I’m not moving along fast enough.”
“Alright, I get the idea. Let’s see, what do we have here?”
Denton watched as Tanner reviewed several of the documents and schematics while muttering to himself. He let a few minutes pass before he interrupted.
“It seems to be some sort of software patch.”
“A software patch? For what and what does it do?”
“The best I can tell, it seems to be for some sort of nav computer. It seems to be some sort of patch to change the navigational parameters it executes.”
“And in English?”
Tanner looked up with an annoyed look on his face. “It means that the patch changes the destination coordinates for the nav system.”
“Ok. So what are the coordinates?”
“Umm, let me see. Ah, here. The original ones are included, no doubt as a way to verify the right system is being patched. Let me pull it up.”
Tanner’s face disappeared and a map of the planet appeared. It quickly zoomed to a location Denton knew very well.
“Looks that way. Here are the new coordinates.” The map zoomed out and back in. Denton felt the color of his face drain.
“The Olympic Stadium.”
“That’s right. I’m just not sure what the connection is. Why would anyone want to land in the desert anyway?”
A preview of the upcoming event suddenly caught Denton’s attention. It showed the Descent pods leaving their stations in space, rushing towards Proxima b and their desert destination. The desert. It was the Descent pod destination.
Tanner, who had continued to talk suddenly realized Denton was not paying attention. “Hey, you still with me?”
Denton nodded. “Yes, hang on a sec.” He pulled up the map of the Descent track and compared it to the desert coordinates. They were the same.
“I’ve got it,” he said as he turned his attention back to Tanner. “The desert destination, it’s the landing zone for the Descent pods.”
“The Descent pods? Really? I didn’t know they were out in the desert. ”
“For safety reasons. If anything happens, a high-speed impact would cause massive damage.”
“Wait a second,” Tanner said, his mouth agape.
“Right, it’s been aimed right for the crowds. It’ll be a disaster. I need to get over there right away.”
Denton stood up, grabbed his uniform jacket, portable communicator and then left his office behind. He headed straight for the transportation hub.
“Tanner, listen to me. I need to know which pod the patch is for. We’ve got to stop it.”
“Alright, alright, hang on.” Tanner scanned through the documents as Denton ran to the closest transport shuttle. “Ok, ok, I’ve got something here. Vanquisher? Does that ring a bell.”
Vanquisher. Denton felt a chill run down his spine as he dove into an open shuttle and overrode the controls with his credentials. The Vanquisher was the premier pod of the planet, the pod most likely to win the descent from space. Whoever had created the malicious patch was planning on killing the people in the stands with it.
“Tanner, where did this patch come from?”
Tanner looked at Denton, a confused look on his face. “They didn’t tell you? It was a diplomatic intercept.”
“A diplomatic intercept? Since when does the Orbital Securit Service look at diplomatic traffic?”
“With the Olympics, we look at everything. It helps that officially, you know, we don’t exist.”
“Right. Tanner, connect me with the tech lead of the Vanquisher.”
The shuttle moved towards the descent hub silently. As Denton waited for the call to go through, he had a priceless view of the planet. Traveling along the spine of the habitable zone of Proxima b. It always gave him a chill to see the contrast between the southern desert zone, always facing Proxima itself, and the northern hemisphere, frozen and isolated from the life-giving rays of the sun. 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. Interspersed throughout the landscape were the cities big and small. He smiled. It was beautiful. It was his home.
“Tanner, how are you coming along? Can you patch me through?”
“There’s something wrong with the comms channel over to the descent hub. I’m getting nothing.”
Denton looked out the window of the shuttle. The descent hub was in the distance, getting closer by the minute. Everything seemed to be in order.
“Tanner, you said the patch was a diplomatic intercept?”
“Who did it come from.”
“Earth? You’re telling me the Earthlings are trying to sabotage the race?”
“It would seem that way. I mean, it’s not a secret that some of them did not approve of including the Descent in the games. One particular faction felt it was too extreme.”
Tanner was right. One faction of the Olympic Committee from Earth had objected to including an event they couldn’t properly train for since the facilities they had around earth were different than those around Proxima B. Denton wasn’t sure how it actually made it into the event but an agreement was made that included it. He had heard the rebellious faction had been overruled. The patch must be their revenge for being sidelined.
“Tanner, how hard is it to reprogram the patch?”
“It’s easy. The hard part is getting the patch into the pod. With no comms channels open I can’t exactly send it over there.”
“Just do it and send it over to me. I’ll relay it. Just hurry up. The race starts in just minutes.”
Denton exited the shuttle and ran through crowds that had assembled for the start of the race. As he approached the team depots, security stepped in his way and blocked the way.
“Sorry, pal, authorized personnel only.”
Denton flashed his badge. “It’s a matter of interplanetary security. Let me through.”
The guard scanned his badge and scrutinized the result. He looked up at Denton. “Never heard of you but you check out. Go on through.”
“Never heard of you but you check out. Go on through.”
After asking where the Vanquisher team had set up shop, he ran through the crowds until he saw the depot for the team. Out of breath, he asked for the tech lead. A dark-haired woman approached him, annoyed at the interruption. He flashed his credentials.
“I’m Gabi, the tech lead. This better be good. The race is starting in just a few minutes and I’m extremely busy.”
“The Vanquisher has been compromised,” he said. “You need to stop the race.”
“Not going to happen. There’s nothing wrong with the V, I’ve checked it myself.”
“I believe you. A malicious software patch was transmitted to it from your central server. It wouldn’t require your approval. Here, look at this.” He turned on a holo-display from the transmitter in his hand. Within moments, he saw her face drain of color.
“It’s been programmed to divert to a different landing zone. At full speed,” she said.
“We need to patch the patch.”
“Well, yes but once the doors are shut, it can only be done with a handheld device from just outside the pod. All outside connections are disabled.”
“Bring the device. My tech is sending over the patch to correct the coordinates.”
The tech grabbed a handheld device and led the way through the crowds to the launch platform. They arrived with only sixty seconds left.
“We’re too late,” she cried. “They’ve already lowered the pods into their launch positions. There’s no way to get close enough.”
Denton looked at her. She was scared. She knew what was about to happen. “What about the backup pods?”
She looked at him, confused. “The backup pods? They’re only here in case the primary pod malfunctions at the very last moment.”
“Launch me. I’ll try to get close enough to reprogram it during the descent.”
“Are you out of your mind? That’s way too dangerous,” she said, her eyes wide open.
“It’s the only option though, right?”
She looked at him for a few seconds. “Do you even know how to descend?” she said.
“Kind of. It’s been a dream of mine for many years. I’ve done hours in a VR simulator. I know it’s not the real deal but it’s as close as I’ve been able to get.”
The tech took him over to the pod as the timer for the launch kept counting down. She strapped him in and moments later, the pod was descending into the launch position. Connected to the pod comm system, he heard her ask if he was ready.
“I’m ready,” he said, his hands ready on the controls.
Moments later, the countdown timer reached zero and he was pushed back in his seat as the pod launched. At first, he was mesmerized by the approaching surface of the planet but as he saw one of the other pods shoot out in front, he focused on the task at hand. He located the Vanquisher and battled the controls to move over towards it.
“He knows I’m coming, right?”
“Unfortunately, no. Comms are shut off from the depot to the pods during the descent. No outside help, that’s what the rules say.”
Denton cursed to himself. Who knew what the pilot of the Vanquisher would do if he saw him approach. Yet, he had no choice. He carefully maneuvered his pod just behind the Vanquisher and initiated the remote patching device while keeping an eye on the pod. If the other pilot changed course at all, he would likely not make it.
He drew a sigh of relief when the patcher beeped, indicating a successful deployment.
“It worked,” he shouted with relief as he engaged the braking system and let the real competitors continue their perilous descent toward fame and fortune, not knowing that disaster had been averted.