The path to the Indomitable Explorer was empty of . . . anyone, really. It would be relieving if Darren weren’t so damned heavy. She, Zarniac, and Tillantrius were all working together to guide the staggering oaf of a giant towards their ship. It wasn’t going well. He kept falling down, and when he fell down, it took all of them to get him moving again. Chryso had been “watching their backs” and taking extended hits from his vaporizer while toting an illegally modified energy weapon. He seemed quite smug about all of that.
Cas huffed quietly as she tugged at Darren’s arm. “Darren, get up and walk or we’re leaving you on the exploding station.”
A long, wailing “NoooooooOOOooOOOOo!” was his only response, as he pushed himself to his feet, took off at a run, tripped over a loose fuel hose, slammed headlong into the side of the Indomitable Explorer. Zarniac winced, Tilly grimaced, and Cas just sighed while Chryso chuckled quietly.
“ . . . don wanna asplode,” came the muffled sound from the twisted heap of muscled limbs that was Darren.
“Do you think his teeth fell out again?” Zarniac whispered quietly to her, looking slightly queasy.
She just sighed. “If they did, I’ll glue them in this time. Just get the door open, and plot us a course out of . . . here.” She gestured at the station as a whole. As if retorting to her remark of disdain, the entire structure trembled beneath their feet, and a quiet groan echoed through the superstructure. “ . . . sooner would be better than later.” She added, a note of fear entering her voice.
Somewhere in the distance, she heard the dull thunk of a pressure bulkhead failing. Judging by the expression of fear on Zarn, Chryso, and Tilly’s faces, they heard it too. With a fresh sense purpose, they all set about their self-allotted tasks.
Tilly opened the cargo hold and helped Chryso and Cas drag Darren inside, while Zarniac began furiously engaging the start up sequence. Darren contributed to the ramp ascent by drooling on it to make the dragging a bit easier, and mumbling about clowns to lighten the “imminent nuclear death” mood that had settled on the group.
Darren was the most effective of any of them at their selected tasks. This wasn’t so much speaking highly of Darren’s ability to drool, or the comedic timing of his feverish moaning of the word “clowns” while bleeding from the mouth, so much as it spoke to the abysmal failure of everyone else to accomplish anything.
Tilly, Chryso, and Cas couldn’t manage to drag Darren across flat ground, let alone an inclined ramp, and Zarniac found rather promptly that he didn’t have navigational clearance to operate the hangar airlock crane, let alone launch a ship during a security lock-down.
“Caaaaaas! We have a problem!” He shouted down the access corridor that connected the cargo bay and the bridge, and Cas was with him in moments.
“Problem?” She inquired, her tone neutral and entirely belying her fear.
“I don’t have takeoff clearance, and the security crane is inoperative. We can’t get the ship out of the station without someone manning that crane.”
Cas’s virtual eyes narrowed as she did a quick scan of his instrument panel. “And your navigational AI has been locked down by some kind of intrusion worm.”
Zarniac frowned, tapping the little blue screen next to his star-map. “Oh . . . the navigational AI is just crashing. It . . . it just does that.” He flicked it a few more times. The screen stayed a flat monochrome blue.
“One problem at a time though, someone needs to get to that crane and-”
Before he could finish his sentence, he heard the grinding screech of the overhand gantry hauling itself into motion, and his console flashed green as his takeoff clearance was granted. “How did you-”
Cas frowned at him. “The network security protocols for these are . . . really not as safe as they should be. In light of recent events . . . this definitely needs to be put up for review.”
Zarniac could only hinge his mouth open and shut weakly, looking for the right response as the magnetic clamps of the gantry latched onto the hull, jerking it into the air with a dull clang.
“He’s sliding off the ramp!” The call came from somewhere either in the cargo bay or possibly from someone desperately clinging to the cargo ramp and trying not to die.
Cas huffed quietly, and thrust her chin forward a nudge as the crane swung the vessel back and stopped short, with an effect similar to an ancient “Cup and Ball Game.” Except instead of a cup, there was the cargo bay of their ship, instead of a string, there was a hasty set of mathematical calculations, and instead of a toy ball, there were two fragile beings and a disturbingly durable semi-retarded goliath. Good heart on the goliath though.
She heard twin yelps of pain, and a dull thump. She guessed she got it right, because there’d be more screaming if she got it wrong. “Close the cargo bay.” Zarniac complied, and she ducked back down the access corridor to the cargo bay.
Sure enough, she’d done it right, and stacked up against the wall in a heap were the human, the Kontosian, and the Centariuan, in proper ascending order of fragility, with Darren on the bottom.
Tillantrius groaned. “Nothing but my pride, dear.”
“Personal record for ‘butt-puckering terror’ experienced, yeah, but other than that no.” Chryso mumbled through a mouthful of robe.
“I think my teeth falled out again.” Darren’s translator intoned flatly. “Wait, I bite-ed my tongue. They still there.” The dull rumble of his voice carried well through the cargo bay, and for the one with the most raw damage having been done to his body, he seemed to be weathering it the best.
“Good. Buckle up. We’re getting out of here.”
Cas bolted back to the bridge, buckling herself into the captain’s chair next to Zarniac as the crane lowered them into the final airlock before launch. Cas overrode the safeties keeping the airlock doors from moving before the gantry had come to a stop, and slammed them shut around the cumbersome industrial lift.
The hiss of air leaving the station, followed by the dull silence of a hard vacuum indicated that they were green to go, and without waiting for Zarniac’s approval, she slammed the ships maneuvering thrusters to full.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going!” He shouted at her, as they nearly clipped the still opening airlock doors, missing them by only scant meters.
“Away from here!” She shouted back, slightly incensed by his indignation.
Zarniac balked, scowling at the upstart mutineer that had seized the captains chair. “First off, there’s a debris field that you’re . . . going . . . to . . .”
His voice trailed off as he managed to catch full sight of the space surrounding Waystation LS-49.
There were thousands of little silver pods glimmering in the navigational lights of the station. Life-pods, every last one of them. All of them packed with the desperate survivors of the horrific massacre on board. Suddenly, one winked out of existence in a spray of shattered metal fragment and frozen viscera.
“What the . . .”
The station asteroid defense systems were targeting, and systematically eliminating any survivors. Little ferrous cylinders, accelerated by magnetic coils, were being hurled at roughly 10 kilometers per second through the escape pods. There was something gut wrenching about seeing a system designed to keep people safe maliciously turned on the helpless victims it was designed to protect. They were dying unexpected, brutal, cold deaths in the hard vacuum of space. With no warning. Like singular blades of grass being clipped by methodical and meticulous reaper of sentient life.
Cas and Zarniac watched in horror as every few seconds another one winked out of existence in a little “puff” of depressurizing tube. The scale of it, more than anything else, chilled them to the core as they realized they were quite possibly the only survivors out of a spaceborne city of 25,000.
Cas wanted to do something to help, she wanted to find a way to shut down those guns, or ram them, or something . . . but she knew that those circuits were isolated physically to prevent anything like this from ever happening. She knew that if she rammed just one of the dozens of defensive guns she’d doom them all, and maybe not even slow down the massacre. All they could do, was watch, or run.
What had started the day as a trading hub, fueling station, and port of safe harbor was now a tomb beyond the edge of the galaxy.
“ . . . I have a course plotted around Cygnux X-1. We can make the jump, slingshot around, pass our intended survey target and head back into core space to . . . report this. To tell someone. To just . . . land somewhere.” Zarniac spoke, but the words felt like they were coming from somewhere beyond him. Outside of him. He couldn’t coexist with the massive cruelty and wanton slaughter of this moment, so he was letting autopilot take over.
Cas’s lower lip trembled, but she swallowed hard, and nodded. “T-take us away then. Get us out of here.”
With a high pitched whine, space folded itself around them, and they left Waystation LS-49 behind them for what they hoped would be forever.
Amonna pulled her legs up to her chest, and rubbed her arms, trying not to listen to the sound of metal buckling and the squeal of superheated coolant being forced through failing seals. The walls were getting warm. Not so hot as to burn her, but enough to make her worried. She’d been tracking the reactor readings on her wrist computer over the past 3 hours, and what she’d thought was going to be a detonation, an overload, or something equally devastating, had turned into the most agonizingly torturous game of “what kills me first.”
She had narrowed it down the three options. One, she was going to die instantly, without even noticing it was going to happen. This was arguably the most desirable outcome, if you can ever consider being instantly vaporized in a nuclear fireball desirable. The reactor would breach containment, a miniature star would be born in the heart of the station for a brief second, and then everything that wasn’t solid tungsten would cease to have any real shape or form outside of a gaseous collapsing plasma field.
It was also the least probable outcome.
Next on the list of horrific ends she was choosing from was being slowly cooked alive inside the ever warming decontamination chamber right next to the reactor core. The reactor had been designed with several failsafe mechanisms to keep the first outcome from becoming a reality, and they were clearly still doing their best to fight whatever mechanism of sabotage had been inflicted upon the station’s reactor core. So, as they bled heat into the superstructure over the next few hours, she would slowly broil inside a metal oven with no way to escape.
That was the most probable outcome, and as miserable as it sounded to her . . . it still beat doorway-to-death number three which was . . .
Dying of starvation, dehydration, and exposure as the reactor fails in a safe fashion, excess heat is bled away over a period of days, and the station loses all power. She would be at the mercy of basic biological functions like “breathing” and “drinking.” Sure it was only three days instead of three hours but it . . . was still horrific.
So as minutes turned to hours, and she still wasn’t vaporized, she began to get scared. She stripped down to virtually nothing, piling up whatever she had on her to make a little mound to sit on just to get off the ever warming deck. When the lights suddenly went out, and the blood-red emergency lighting kicked on, she went from scared, to total despair. She tried doing the thermodynamic calculations they’d taught her in survival school to figure out how long she had before the metal crypt she was stuck in would be so cold her skin would freeze on contact with the metal, but that only distracted her for so long.
When her wrist computer said that she had been on shift for 12 hours, and needed to take a break or she would face a disciplinary hearing, it actually made her laugh. A bitter, spiteful laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. As the deck began to cool, she pulled all of her clothing back on, piece by piece, but not after wringing the moisture out of it to drink. She’d been dehydrated when she’d been locked in here, and at this point it was a race to see if exposure or dehydration would be her end first.
When her wrist computer chimed and told her it had been 24 hours, she wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted to do . . . something, but she knew that every action she took, every emotion she allowed to well up in her would only accelerate her heart, make her burn through what little oxygen she had left, and just kill her faster.
Part of her thought that might be the best thing to do. Just start doing jumping jacks until the air runs out and go to sleep . . . but somewhere deep inside, there was a nugget of spite that just wouldn’t let her. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to live, which, she certainly did. She wanted to live more than anything else, she just didn’t have any hope of living. So when the hope ran out, all that was left was spite. A hatred of her circumstance so intense . . . so irrational . . . the only response she could come up with was to persist through it out of sheer defiance. A raw “fuck you” to the universe that had the gall to sentence her to such an ignominious and miserable end.
So she saved her breath. Slept as much as possible. Sucked the moisture out of the decontamination sprayer nozzles, and curled up in a tight ball on top of what little material she could find that wasn’t thermally conductive to stay as warm as possible.
And she waited for someone to find her.
‘Machinator’ stood over the prone form of his longtime comrade in arms, watching him closely. The Zylach ex-security chief shivered slightly, unconsciously curling his body up to preserve warmth. He’d moved him to the now vacant crew quarters, and thrown a survival blanket over him after they’d seized the ship. Besides the commando contingent, there’d just been a pilot and two maintenance personnel. No real resistance. Grinder and Dynamo were cleaning up the mess Verdock had left in the cargo bay, and it was . . . quite a mess. Once the cargo was properly secure, they’d plotted a course to the rendezvous location, and made the jump to dark space beyond the edge of the galaxy. The first leg of the operation was complete, and they were all be one step closer to living in a better galaxy.
But that wasn’t what occupied the majority of his processor cycles. It was Verdock. The joke at the department had always been that “When it comes to cold, calculating logic, the synthetic officers look to Verdock to double check their assessments.” It had only been a joke but it was universally agreed upon that the synthetic persons in the department found Verdock easier to get along with than most of the organic personnel did. He didn’t hesitate, or second guess himself. If he was uncertain, he deferred to those with more information and better insight. He wasn’t rude, or demanding, but he had exacting standards that he made very clear to everyone he worked with, regardless of the origin of their sentience. The previous head of security had been a sentimental Chridae that had been quite competent, but seemed to do their job largely by feel and intuition, and pinning down solid justification for some of their more ambitious endeavors was difficult. Verdock’s structured, logical mind had been made the running of things smoother. Security was being deployed not as the head of security dictated, but as the situation and protocol dictated. Crime fell, department approval rose, and complaints were sparse.
An innocuous package that he’d personally delivered one fateful morning had changed all of that.
Verdock roused slightly, eyelids fluttering as he seized the edge of his bunk. A tremor rocked his body as he hauled himself over to the edge to spill his guts on the deck below. The resulting mixture of bile and blood spattered Machinator’s lower appendages with a wet sound that echoed through the empty crew quarters.
That wasn’t good.
Machinator checked the timer he’d set for the Captain, only 8 hours, 12 minutes and 35 seconds had gone by. A thermal scan revealed his body temperature was almost 43 degrees Celsius, and when Machinator consulted an actuarial table cross referenced with Verdock’s condition . . . he estimated there were between 12 and 24 hours left until cardiac arrest and total organ failure, with 95% confidence interval.
Machinator thought back to that little parcel. It had seemed so unremarkable on the day it arrived. Just another little pressurized vessel for small, frangible objects. Perhaps unusual that it had been sent to Captain Verdock directly, not the head of security, and more unusual that it had no listed sender, but everyone received mail at some point.
Verdock had called a meeting the day he received the package, but it was not an ordinary or informal gathering near a charging hub or in the break room between shifts. It was late, the middle of “evening hours.” The concept of emotional trauma was foreign to most AI, particularly work AI that had the ability to edit their emotional responses on the fly to better perform their duties, but the only way Machinator could describe that meeting was “haunting.”
It had been a challenge to pack every security drone into the single classified briefing room, but they’d done it. Verdock had been sitting, the only one of them afforded enough room to do so. Once they had sealed the place, they sat in uncomfortable silence for what had seemed an irrational duration of time. Some had quietly guessed that Verdock was retiring, or had developed some fatal illness that was going to cut his career short, but none of them in their wildest imaginings could have come up with the truth.
He fished around in his pocket for a moment, before setting what looked to be a simple glass cylinder on the desk. Maybe 15 centimeters tall, with a diameter of roughly a third that, it looked like a paperweight, save the small conical indentation in the top, and the dull grey sphere suspended in the very center.
“This arrived specifically addressed to me 36 hours ago. It came with no return information, and I haven’t been able to find it anywhere in our shipping logs, which is an oddity in and of itself. Upon close review I have discovered three things of note. First, a small message affixed to the object.” He slid a small metal chit across the desk, bearing the inscription “To the seekers of truth, in service of the seekers of order.”
The language was old, maybe 1200 years old, and written in a form of Gentrue that was commonly found in technical documentation from that era. There was a subtle nuance to the usage of the word “seeker” in this context. It wasn’t a seeker in the way of a searcher, but seeking in the same fashion that a positive charge seeks a negative charge, the way something caught in a gravity well seeks to move to the lowest energy potential. Seeker in this context meant something that was inexorably drawn by dint of its very nature, not just desire. The odd structure of the phrase made it unclear if the “seeker of order” was the sender or the recipient, but all of this was just a passing flicker of cursory assessment that coursed through his inquisitive mind to be filed away for later review.
“The second thing, is that this device contains a large data-cache suspended in a crystalline lattice. The . . . implications of its contents are disturbing, and I have yet to fully delve into them.”
His expression darkened, and an expression of fatigue that was entirely foreign to Captain’s face played across it in the dimmed ‘evening lighting’ of the station.
“And lastly, radiological dating places it at roughly 8.9 billion years old.”
Machinator remembered there had been argument, after that. His memory was incomplete, and he could tell that he himself had purposefully damaged his records of the event. He had no audio or visual recording of what had transpired, but an ultrasonic-spatial recording still existed. Nothing but fuzzy and general outlines were available for him to review, but they showed that a security drone had picked up the archive, examined it for nearly 3 minutes, uninterrupted, before gently placing the archive back on the desk. At this point, the security drone designated ‘Trip-Hammer’ violently self terminated by clawing its central processing housing open and crushing its quantum processing core with both manipulator arms.
Machinator did not understand what he had seen. He could not guess at what would drive a rational being to self terminate without explanation, but he trusted Verdock. He had never wavered before, never fallen to irrational or wistful thinking. He thought like a machine, and that had always been a reassuring fact for Machinator. He reassured himself that all of this had been the product of rational thought . . . or at the very least tried to, as his focus shifted back to present matters before him.
Verdock’s breath had grown shallow and fast, back arched and mouth stretched wide in a silent scream as a nictitating membrane flickered across his eyes for the first time in the past 15 million years of his species evolutionary history.
“Reason . . . all of this is for a reason,” Machinator vocalized generally, tone laden with worry for his old friend. He sincerely hoped that both he and Verdock were right about this.