“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 22
closed his eyes, ignoring the incessant stream of data being blasted at him
through the integrated heads up display of his helmet. He focused on the subtle
things, the tug of gravity at his stomach, the deck vibrations caused by the
Outrider’s thrusters, and the tightness of
his armor around his chest. It wasn’t his first time being pulled from dead
asleep to full combat readiness, and it wasn’t the first time he’d volunteered
for a zero-reconnaissance, zero-intelligence rescue operation. In fact, there
wasn’t anyone on the Outrider that considered this a first, or even unusual.
The ship and his comrades both were well seasoned veterans, and while the ship
still bore the bright, coppery color of it’s penetration shielding, the weary
bones told a story much longer than the fresh glint of the hull would suggest.
Outrider, a catch-all designation for the class of vessel customized by commando and honor guard units, put together ad hoc whenever special missions arose. This one started life as a communications probe. It had been subsequently gutted, refitted with an oversize engine, clad in a twin layer of copper and tungsten alloy superconductor plates, and packed with as much firepower and communications equipment as would fit after all of that. It had a harsh, angular shape, like the delta tip of a spear meant for a titan, and in many ways it was. Ikor and his fellows would be the first to set foot on the slowly spinning dead asteroid, or more specifically in the dead asteroid, as their craft burrowed through the surface of it, superheated copper trapped in a fluctuating magnetic field cutting through the nickel-iron alloy like a hot knife through butter. The briefing had been, well, brief. Get on the ship, enter the asteroid, find the source of the transmission, wait for further orders. Simple. In theory.
The Outrider shook him in his harness, and his eyes snapped open. He scanned the readouts, checking everything from his squad-mates vital signs to the crude radar array built into the outrider. There was a dull impact as the vessel shook again, the maneuvering thrusters firing sporadically to guide them through an unseen debris field. His eyes narrowed, something this obvious should have been easy to avoid. He didn’t like it, but he knew it wouldn’t threaten the mission success chance. Anything big enough to damage the ship they could dodge, and anything too small to see coming they could shrug off, but it was a bad omen. This should have been easy to detect. This shouldn’t have been an issue to begin with. There was another impact, and the communication channel back to command went dead as an external communications relay was obliterated by a chunk of iron the size of a baseball traveling at 4000 meters per second. The backup relay kicked in moments later, operating flawlessly, and he let out an internal sigh of relief.
He scanned the motionless, midnight black helmets of his squad mates, who were all likely thinking something similar to him. There were only six of them in the pod, but with how heavily armed and armored they were . . . that wouldn’t be a problem. Their armor was self contained, bio-integrative, pressurized, had reactive elements and with powered muscle assist spindles running through it provided freedom and ease of movement even in high gravity terrestrial conditions. Each of them had auto-correcting equilibrium implants for fighting in zero-g or fluctuating gravity, joint replacements for controlling weapon recoil, nanotube bone reinforcement, and a hormone control node implanted on the right side of each of their hind-brains. Without putting too fine a point on it, they were about as much hardware as they were “natural,” and all of the hardware was aimed at making them more efficient, effective, and durable soldiers.
He set his jaw as he remembered the thing he’d watched throw around his people like rag dolls. It had been head and shoulders taller than them, and took hits like they were using foam training weapons for pre-modification recruits. Fear was something that had become a part of his life as a commando. There was fear of explosive decompression, fear of being gunned down by hypervelocity armor-piercing flechette, fear of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . but he had never felt that primal kind of fear where something that was prey looked at something that was a predator. All of his weapons, all his armor, all that training and technology just didn’t matter in the face of that bellowing mountain of muscle and rage. They just kept hitting it and hitting it, but nothing seemed to stop it, or even slow it down. He’d never voice it, but when the Captain of the Honor Guard had saddled up on scene, and dusted the thing handily, he didn’t feel pride in his commander, or even awe for his martial skill, he just felt relief. It didn’t feel like a victory against that thing, just survival.
The command channel in his helmet chimed to life. “30 seconds to surface impact. Brace, and prepare to disembark.”
The calm, clear orders of General Vrang pushed such thoughts aside. He was being sentimental, getting distracted. He needed to focus, just on the mission, and nothing else. The asteroid seemed to be largely porous, with preliminary scans indicating a series of ordered chambers running through it roughly 200 meters beneath the surface. They should make entry very near the source of the signal, but those measurements were bound to have drift caused by what appeared to be a substantial layer of conductive metallic elements. Using their armor mounted microthrusters and mag-boots, they’d maneuver to the source of the distress beacon, mapping tunnels as they went, and then establish a more powerful long range communications array that could penetrate the damping effects of the conductive layer.
There was a dull crackle and a surge of heat as the liquid copper shell engaged, boring through dozens of meters of solid rock in seconds. Ironically, there was less turbulence digging through the asteroid than approaching it, Ikor mused silently. He quietly checked over his weapon. A sleek hybrid of several different weapon systems, he’d had it primed and ready since the hangar incident . . . as a sort of safety blanket. There was a standard Kinetic Pulse rifle nested down the length of the gun, perfect for use on standard soft targets, but around it was built a three prong, overdriven Microwave Beam Emitter. While the Kinetic Pulse weapon would pulverize flesh and shatter bone at considerable distance and at prodigious rates of fire, the Microwave Beam Emitter would flash-boil, ignite, or just outright incinerate anything that got within its range. Under that, he’d mounted a smooth bore AP-Flechette cannon, for when not even fire would kill it. There was enough firepower in his hands to bring down the Outrider, and he was almost certain it would be enough to stop a human dead in its tracks.
He really didn’t want to have to test that theory though.
The faint rumbling came to a stop, but the static interference from the asteroid made communications from General Vrang impossible now. Ikor switched to short range communications, no point in wasting energy cell life on the long range transmitter if it couldn’t get through. “You all know what to do, keep chatter to a minimum.” He received 5 affirmative crackles. A single click of the transmitter to let him know he had been heard. The seconds drug on in silence as the hull cooled, creaking and popping as it did so. Finally, their restraint harnesses automatically disengaged, and they were free to float about the cabin, though there was barely enough room for all six of them in it. The rear hatch slid open quietly, and while he had expected there to be a gust of air as the ship depressurized, he was surprised no such event occurred. Internally his brow furrowed, and he intuitively fired the thrusters on his boots, propelling him out and into the still faintly glowing tunnel they’d carved on their way in. His weapon was at his shoulder, and as he drifted away from the Outrider, he saw a multitude of half breached or completely bisected tunnels in their ships wake. “Kal, Vers, with me.” Two crackles of response met his order, and without bothering to check if they were behind him, he drifted up to the first opening.
He’d had a few guesses as to what they’d find, of course. He’d been expecting the polished alloy of a military installation, or the rough rock of a mining operation, or the long abandoned and shoddily constructed scrap-station used by illegal salvager’s and pirates . . . but he never would have guessed this. He gently drifted forward into the smooth, almost polished stone of the corridor. The lamps mounted on either side of his helmet cast bright light across the dark, but somehow glossy surface of the rock. The twin pools of light swept side to side as he scanned the strangely organic curves of buttressing and cross bridging, the almost rib like constructions arching the span of the tunnel. He flicked the safety on his weapon off, before guiding himself down to the flatter, more open portion of the tunnel and engaged his magnetic boots with a dull thump.
Ikor’s eyes flickered across his HUD one more time, checking to see what his suits sensors were making of the place. Gamma radiation? Nominal. EM transmissions? Virtually absent. Atmospheric pressure? Roughly three quarters standard.
“Specialist Vers, get me an atmospheric reading.” He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see her take a knee, and activate her forearm mounted diagnostic suite.
“Trace thorium, silica dust, oxygen, point-seven-seven atmospheres, and a large amount of water. I’m getting . . . unidentified carbon compounds, likely biologically complex macromolecules.” Her tone was firm, authoritative, but ended in a subtle uptick that was the hallmark of curiosity.
“Breathable?” Ikor crackled with a single raised eyebrow.
“In a pinch, affirmative. I wouldn’t until I can identify what the biological compound is though.” She shrugged. The gesture was barely noticeable considering how much gear she had on, but Ikor picked up on it.
He took a few tentative steps forward, scanning the long and subtly curving corridor with broad sweeps of his rifle. “Well, get me a line on that emergency beacon, and figure it out as we move.”
He took a few more careful steps forward before suddenly stumbling, barely able to catch himself as he felt his entire body suddenly get heavier.
“Sergeant?” Both of his squad mates moved forward sharply to cover him before he could wave them off.
“It’s nothing, just an artificial gravity field . . . must be malfunctioning, otherwise we’d have hit it on the way in.” He disengaged his magnetic boots, and took another few steps forward. “Strong too, we must be close to the source.”
The two affirmative clicks weren’t quite enough to put him at ease, but the navigational marker on his HUD was. 200 meters ahead, more or less. “Hopefully in this tunnel.” It was difficult to judge because of the unusual curve, but . . . if they were lucky. “Sitrep on the Outrider?” There was a pause. Perfectly normal, as they were likely making a visual inspection to ensure the integrity of the craft, but something about the place put Ikor on edge. He wondered if he still had the jitters from the hangar, but the thought was interrupted by a static crackle. “Outrider appears fully operational, tunnel integrity is sound. Status is green across the board.”
He let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Good, that was good . . .
“100 meters front, do you have eyes on the source?” The communications link to Vers crackled, like there was some signal distortion, considering she was a half step behind him that shouldn’t have been-
Ikor glanced over his shoulder, and did a double take. Vers was gone. He spun on his heel, and Corporal Kal, his second in command, was clearly searching for her as well. “Vers, what is your location, I repeat, what is your location?” He quickly pinged his Friend-or-Foe system, stomach dropping like a stone as only 4 responses came up.
“I’m . . . “ The static was worse, much worse now. Kal pulled a monofiber cable off his belt and looped it through a carabiner on Ikor’s belt, slapping his commander on the shoulder to physically affirm he was still there. “I’m getting movement on my scope, how the hell did- CONTACT FRONT!” The high pitched report of Kinetic Pulse weapons fire echoed down the long corridor, and both Ikor and Kal took off at a dead sprint towards it. Their boots thudded against the dark gray, glassy floor, a faint mist slowly rising higher and thicker as they ran closer to the source of the sound and hopefully Vers. Kal spooled out a little slack, one hand on the security line, the other on his rifle as he tried to keep pace with Ikor, the years of training and drilling and instinctive combat response keeping them moving with a purpose, even in this bewildering scenario. “KP IS INEFFECTIVE, SWITCHING TO FLECHETTE!” The loud booming of the under-slung smooth-bore seemed close, but they still couldn’t see anyone. The panic and desperation in her voice was clear. “IT’S IN THE MIST! STAY OUT OF THE-” There was a crunching sound that turned Ikor’s stomach. He didn’t stop to imagine what caused it before flicking his Microwave Beam Emitter to maximum charge, and waving it around like a torch in the darkness. The faint mist turned to clear steam, and for a moment he caught a glimpse of something.
It was just a glimpse, just a hint, it was almost the same color as the mists, almost the same texture as the stone . . . but different. Wrong. Impossible.
But there wasn’t time to think about it. There wasn’t time to stop and wonder if what he saw was even real. He didn’t break stride, and neither did Kal. They had to get to Vers. Burning a way through the mists that aggressively coalesced behind them, they kept advancing. Vers Friend-or-Foe tag was visible on his HUD, but her vitals were flatlined.
That’s when he heard it. Coughing, faint, but there. The mists had begun to thin from the opaque wall of white to just traces of vapor coiling about their boots, and there was Vers, helmet in one hand, standing with her back to both Kal and Ikor.
“Vers, come in!” Ikor barked into their shared com channel, but received only silence. Switching to an external speaker, he barked out again. “Vers, answer me, I need a sitrep!”
She didn’t move, but her head tilted back just a few degrees. “I’m . . . I’m all right, Ikor.” She sounded . . . tired. “It’s alright. I think . . . I think it’s over.”
Kal was frantically sweeping his sectors, weapon at the ready. “With all due respect specialist, what the fuck?” Kal’s external speaker coughed into the dim mist as Ikor’s helmet lights swept over Ver’s armor. Scratched, battered, but otherwise intact, she didn’t appear to be wounded at first glance. Ikor kept his sights trained on her. “Vers . . . gimmie a sitrep, Vers.”
Vers, to her credit, took a few steps away, before leaning against the smooth wall of the tunnel. With a heavy sigh, she slid down to a seated position. Blood was flowing freely from her nose and ears, even one of her eyes was leaking a stream of bright red vitae from the corner. “This is gonna sound fucked up guys . . . but . . . uhh . . .” She scratched her head with her free hand, setting her clearly shattered helmet on her knee. That must have been the crunching sound he’d heard, Ikor mused silently.
His suppositions were interrupted as, with abject horror, Ikor watched something slither inside her suit. It was thin, long, but powerful, and his stomach turned as he could see the body-tight under layer of her combat suit bulge and ripple as it worked its way up her leg, across her abdomen, and around to her back. “ . . . Vers what the fuck was that?”
His tone was a half whisper, and his hands were shaking slightly as he trained his sights on her forehead, priming a flechette round in the under barrel smooth-bore.
“I get it, no like . . . really I get it. But we’re wrong. Every . . . everything we’ve been taught, everything we’ve fought for is a lie.” Her head dropped, and she shivered as something flashed across the side of her neck. “I don’t even know where to start, actually.”
She stood again, an expression of mixed consternation and frustration on her face. “No matter what I tell you . . . you’re probably just going to blow my head off. Because that’s exactly what makes sense to do. That’s exactly what I would do. I guess . . . I’m not even gonna say don’t fight it. Because . . . well, that’s what you’d expect me to say right now.”
Every fiber of his being was screaming at Ikor that this wasn’t Vers, this was something . . . something different. But the mannerisms were the same, the body language, the posture . . . some part of whatever was in front of him still was. “I guess I’d say it doesn’t . . . it doesn’t hurt? I mean you feel kinda dumb afterward, but it doesn’t hurt.”
An alarm sounded as something breached the boot of his suit, and he snapped his rifle down, firing at the space between his feet. He was rewarded with a spatter of gray gore, and a high pitched squealing sound, but he could already feel it . . . writhing inside him. His leg went numb, and it buckled as he lost all control of it. It didn’t hurt. That much was true. He could feel pressure though. Inside his muscles, across his bones as it swam through his flesh. He thought it would be a struggle, perhaps with some terrifying mental presence as his body was stripped from him. But it wasn’t. It was more like remembering something from a long time ago. Like where he left a set of keys, or an old song. He could feel its thin tendrils as they penetrated his skull, merging with his nervous system seamlessly. He expected something about it to terrify him, or at least hurt, but there was nothing of the sort. It was just . . . an awkward realization. The Coryphaeus, the Core Worlds . . . all of it was founded on pretty obvious lies, now that he could see the truth. It made sense, even. Even with that, he was still himself. All his memories, his aspirations, the pride he took in his career and his squad mates . . . even his penchant for capsaicin seasoned foods. Just, that, and bigger picture, the real plan. The way forward. It was . . . kind of staggering in scale, really. The whole galaxy, maybe even more. It was a lot to take in, or at least it would be if it didn’t feel like he’d always known it.
“You . . . were right, Vers. I do feel a little dumb.” He looked over to see Kal struggling to yank the gray tendril out of the neck seal of his suit, but after a moment of struggling, he too stopped.
Vers chuckled, the kind of good humored laugh one has when they’ve been made the butt of a practical but harmless joke. “Yeah . . . kinda glad that we got it figured out though, you know? Even if it was against our will. Glad you didn’t pop my head off . . . was actually really worried that was gonna happen.”
Ikor felt a moment of embarrassment. He was really ready to kill Vers out of fear. Fear of something he just didn’t understand, and out of dedication to a cause that would sacrifice him without a second thought. “Yeah . . . I do feel guilty about that.” He pushed himself to his feet, walking over to help Kel up as well. The creature from the hangar, the human, as he now understood, was never their enemy. He was just another piece on the board. He smiled to himself. It was freeing, to realize that the human he had been so frightened of was really on their side all along.
“Well, I’m glad you at least feel guilty about it.” She gave him a halfhearted, if a bit awkward smirk. All seemed so foolish now. “So, Sergeant, how are we going to pass on the uhh . . . “ Vers waved her hand around, thin gray tendrils erupting from her fingertips.
Ikor rolled his shoulders, and he felt it settle somewhere in the small of his back. “We’ll finish setting up the long range communication beacon, tell command the truth about it being a decoy, and then head back to the Outrider. We’ll pass it on once the harnesses have locked them in place.” Vers and Kal both nodded. “Well, let’s get to it then. Transcendence doesn’t happen on it’s own, you know?” That got a laugh from both Vers and Kal, as they all set off down the familiar tunnel once again.