The Darkest Night

See disclaimer in Part One

Part Seven -- by Becky Ratliff

They grabbed their gear and headed for the hatch, all the pressure seals were green. No one stood right in front of the hatch when they opened it and they headed through with guns ready, but nothing was waiting in the maintenance corridor inside. Avery shut the hatch behind them and did something to a data terminal beside it.

McQueen asked, "What was that?"

"Got the hatch reporting status normal, now they can't tell anything's docked here. To find our launch they'll have to check every one of these hatches manually, and there's about fifteen of them scattered all over the station. That much more chance we won't have a squad of `em waiting on us when we get back."

They had spent much of the trip out here going over specs of the station and planning their assault, they were docked near the "top" of the station and the computer stations they needed to get to were near the central core. They had several alternate routes in mind, but staying in the small maintenance corridors seemed like certainly the wisest course. It wasn't a straight shot that would give anyone lying in ambush a clear field of fire, there were numerous twists and turns that would give them cover if they had to get past opposition. McQueen took point and Vansen brought up the rear, their job was to get Avery safely to one of the computer terminals. It was only a matter of time until the Golem noticed he had intruders, then things would get downright interesting. In the meanwhile, the idea was to cover as much ground as they could.

There wasn't a lot of light in here, Vansen slid her helmet's visor down and turned up the light amplification. Small dark holes were definitely not her thing, she couldn't afford to waste time thinking about that right now.

They came to a corner, not a sharp 90 degree turn but still enough to block visibility around the turn. The outside wall of the corridor was the station's inner hull; a massive I-beam structural brace extended about half a meter into the corridor along the bend of the corner there.

McQueen stopped them and headed up that way carefully, suddenly he let out a yell and swung his rifle butt like a baseball bat. Something small and hard whanged off the rifle and ricocheted off the big I-beam, Vansen heard it more than saw it so she wasn't sure where it went after that. She and McQueen immediately dived for the nearest cover, down an even smaller maintenance tube. A split second later, it dawned on Avery that the item McQueen had just sent sailing back up the corridor was a smart grenade and that: A) they had just escaped being blown to bits by the narrowest possible margin and B) that thing was probably coming back. He dived down the tube behind Vansen and kicked a hatch shut behind him, almost immediately an explosion outside ripped it off its hinges and thrust it into the tube. It knocked Avery off his feet right into Vansen. There was no time for subtlety, she climbed over top of him and the hatch both to get a clear shot as an AI's head poked around the corner. The silicate was bringing his gun to bear, if she'd been any slower he'd have been able to take them all out with ridiculous ease. But Vansen opened up on him and the impact of the burst knocked him over backwards, his shots all went over their heads.

Vansen reported, "I can hear more of `em around there, where does this go?"

"We're gonna find out," McQueen replied.

"Oh, shit, I was afraid you were going to say that. GO, Jim!"

Avery shook his head hard to clear it, the explosion and shooting had left him a little stunned. He moved, following McQueen down the corridor. All of them had to use their visors in here, it was pitch black. Vansen followed them, keeping an eye on the rear in case the AI's tried to follow them down the tunnel. She prayed they didn't have any more smart grenades, McQueen's little stunt back there had been one in a million and they wouldn't get that lucky twice!

McQueen said in a low voice, "Looks like it opens up."

"It's about damn time." Vansen thought about the construction of the station. "We must be getting close to the sensor array, that must be some kind of maintenance area underneath there."

"Right, maybe there's a shaft going down." They were several levels too high in the station.

The narrow tunnel gave way into a circular room. The ceiling was just barely high enough for McQueen and Avery to walk upright, or would have been if it hadn't been crisscrossed by all sorts of ductwork and conduits. The room was full of electronics for the sensors. Telltales on the machinery provided a dim glow, Vansen's visor clicked almost inaudibly as it compensated for the change in light.

There were two main ways out of the room, about the same as the corridor they had originally entered, and a couple more of the smaller access tubes. Then Avery spotted a possibility, a meter-wide hatch in the floor. He knelt to get it open, it was locked. Vansen and McQueen continuously scanned the entrances to the room, they were in a very bad place if the AI's caught up to them here. Avery pulled a small device out of his bag and attached it to the lock, lights blinked as it searched for the combination. Momentarily, the lock opened. Avery turned the manual wheel and pulled up on the hatch, it was too heavy for him. "Ty, give me a hand here!"

McQueen pulled up on the hatch, he was strong enough to get it open. He motioned for Shane to go first, she was scared sick to climb down in there but she couldn't let terror remembered from childhood put them all in mortal danger right now. She made herself climb down one rung of the ladder, and then another, and then another. Avery followed, and McQueen came last, covering their escape. He closed the hatch behind him and locked it manually from the inside, that would give the AI's some trouble following.

The ladder came out in another maintenance corridor. Beyond the wide public corridors in normal everyday use, ships and stations of any size at all were honeycombed by these small, roughly finished passageways, but no one except engineering personnel normally went there. In fact, for safety reasons, they were off limits to nearly everyone else. But they came in handy now.

Avery asked, "Did we come down one deck or two? That seemed like a long way."

McQueen judged the distance. "I think it was only one, you're going to have to hit the gym more often."

Avery's reply was short and rude, McQueen just laughed quietly in the darkness. "There's a data alcove, can you use the terminal to find out where the hell we are?"

"Yeah." The hacker took his place at the terminal and set about getting into the system. Stealth was his first objective, it would be easy to make a wrong move and let every silicate on the station know exactly where they were. Deck plans came up. "You're right, it was just one level--two to go. There's a central shaft that runs through most of the station, the power core runs up through the middle of it. If we can get in there, it looks like there are access ways in there that'll take us real close."

Shane was distracted by a whiff of something that reeked. "What's that smell?" She asked suspiciously.

McQueen pronounced, "It's sewer gas. Someone must have left a bilge hatch open."

She made a face. "Wonderful. Which way?"

Avery said, "Straight down here and then left, there should be a hatch into the shaft."

Suddenly the lights went out, in the couple of seconds it took their visors to adjust Shane heard something -- a number of small somethings -- skittering around them, making little AI cheeping noises to one another. Suddenly something ran up her boot and a number of little legs attached themselves to her ankle, something sawed painfully at her leg. She kicked it off and stomped at it. Another one dropped off the ceiling and landed on her back, she reached behind her and yanked it off, it was covered with stinking glop from the bilges. Avery yelled in pain as one of the little bots' cutter blades bit home, she yanked it off him and threw it against a wall. McQueen said, "There's a whole swarm of them! Jim, shut them down, we'll try to keep them off you!"

Avery got back into the system, hunting for the control program he needed. Vansen lost count of how many of the little terrors she smashed, aside from the throbbing cut on her ankle she was bitten again three or four times. One, high on her back, managed to cut deep into her shoulder muscle before McQueen got it off her and smashed it. He was bleeding too, and Vansen knew if Avery didn't hurry it was only a matter of time until one of them managed to inflict a crippling injury. If they fell, they'd be swarmed by the little mechanical vermin -- Vansen was hard pressed to imagine a more horrible death. No wonder the AI's hadn't followed them down here!

Avery swore, one of the bots had got past them and latched onto his thigh. He threw it out into the corridor and typed a couple more lines. The bots shut down. Avery explained, "I reformatted their hard drives, somebody'll have to gather them up by hand and reload their programming. Let's get the hell out of here!"

He didn't have to repeat that suggestion, they didn't stop to treat their injuries until they had a solid hatch between them and the bots. There were antibiotic hyposprays in the medical kit, they all took one and patched up the worst of the bites. The one on Vansen's shoulder was the worst, she couldn't do much with her left arm but fortunately it was her off hand. Avery's leg wound wasn't as bad, but a limp would necessarily slow them down more than a sore shoulder. McQueen claimed that he'd only been scratched, which seemed to be more or less the truth, at least as far as Vansen could tell.

They found the entrance to the central shaft, it was locked. Once again Avery tried to work his magic on it, but his electronic lockpick was useless. Avery scowled. "It's the Golem. He knows I'm in the system, he's got ice up that this unit can't automatically break. I'll have to tie into the system and get us through myself."

"That'll take too long. They're going to be on us as soon as they realize the sewer pipe bots are off-line," McQueen replied. "Stand back."

Vansen started to object, but then she realized that was stupid. The Golem had to know exactly where they were, pipe-cleaning bots weren't smart enough to plan a massed ambush. They just chewed up whatever they were directed to chew up. Another intelligence had to have directed their ambush. Secrecy was useless now, they had to stay one step ahead of the AIs.

McQueen shot the lock out of the hatch and kicked it open, looked out into the shaft. Vansen took the other side of the hatchway, her rifle at the ready. The door opened onto a metal catwalk. The ceiling was about ten meters up, more or less, and the floor was a long ways away -- it looked to Vansen like the shaft ran all the way through the station.. The power core filled the center of the shaft, a network of catwalks ran out to it at various levels and intervals. Narrow, steep gangways connected the levels of catwalks. "Make for that gangway?" She asked.

"Looks like our best bet. Jim, are you up for making a run for it?"

He tested his weight on his injured leg, sweat broke out on his forehead but he had a determined expression on his face. "I'll be right behind you."

"Vansen, cover us, we'll go first."

"Roger that."

Vansen stepped back briefly to allow Avery to get through the door behind McQueen. The gangway was fifty meters away, she scanned the chamber for any movement. Her companions had made it halfway to the gangway when the shooting started.

Instantly Vansen returned fire at muzzle flashes from the highest-level catwalk, across the shaft. Two levels up, there were three shooters using what cover they could get from the darkness and the railing. One of them pitched over and fell all the way down the shaft to its death, Vansen thought it was a Felicity unit but she couldn't be sure. She hoped so, the Felicity AI's were usually the ones in command of a mission and its destruction would create confusion for the rest. But all she had time to worry about right now were the other two.

One of them popped up, and as she took her shot at him, the other one made his move, threw a grenade. It landed on the next catwalk up. Vansen screamed, "GRENADE -- RIGHT OVER YOUR HEADS!" and broke cover herself to fire a full burst at the two AI's. She cut one of them literally in half, the second joined his "sister" in a fatal plunge over the edge.

McQueen and Avery heard Vansen's warning shout, but they had already been moving hell for leather since the shooting started. The grenade went off with a deafening roar that echoed through the shaft, the shrapnel was a level over their heads but that wasn't the only danger. A section of the catwalk up above them slewed sideways and broke loose, fell directly at them. They dived for the gangway, McQueen almost made it. Avery wasn't that lucky.

Vansen broke into a dead run, skirted the fallen metal along the eight inches of clear path that remained along the outside edge. She skidded to a halt, at first she couldn't see Avery. McQueen was pinned from the waist down under what for all she knew was tons of metal -- she couldn't budge it.

She heard Avery's voice from under the wreckage, she could hear the agony in every word. "Shane -- you've got to take this disk -- get to the terminal -- access code -- Destroyer of Worlds --" His voice was cut off by a wracking cough.

He passed the disk to McQueen. When Vansen took it, it was covered with blood and she didn't know whose. "I've got to get you out of there!"

McQueen said, "Negative that. You've got to complete the mission. That's an order, Captain!"

Their eyes met. Now, as always, Vansen realized, McQueen was counting on her to be his right hand. She flew the missions that by all rights he should have been leading. This was no different. She secured the disk safely in her T-shirt pocket, inside her combat vest, and poured every ounce of conviction she had into her voice when she swore, "I'll be back for you." Then she did the hardest thing she had ever done in her life -- headed for the gangway and left them behind, hurt and maybe dying.

The hatch she had been planning to use was blocked by something heavy jammed up against the other side of it, that warned her that the enemy had set up a defensive position inside. The Golem had certainly pulled back his remaining forces for a last-ditch defense of the computer facility. She ran on around until she found a relatively unsecured hatch, blew the lock away and made her way inside. As soon as she rounded the corner she traded fire with two AI's, she was a better shot but she knew the others had seen her through the eyes of those two.

She wasn't kept waiting long, there were a bunch of them ganged up in the corridor right outside the computer lab. She ducked back to avoid a hail of bullets and reached behind her for one of her two grenades. It had a ten second fuse, she counted to seven before she ducked around the corner and threw it at them as hard as she could. She was grazed in the arm before she could duck back, but as she retreated behind her door facing the explosive charge went off. Shrapnel and pieces of AI's blew back down the corridor.

Dimly through the ringing in her ears she heard scrambling noises and AI chatter, she hadn't got them all and the survivors were falling back to the computer lab itself. She ducked around the corner, traded fire with one big bald AI who had stayed behind to cover the rest's retreat. He was tough and a damn good shot, but Vansen had learned to wait for her kill. The next time he popped out for a shot at her, she drilled him with a single shot right between the eyes.

Vansen advanced down the corridor, stepping around the fragmented remains of the AI casualties. The deck was slick with mingled blood and hydraulic fluid, the acrid stench of burnt flesh and circuitry filled the corridor. It would be hours before the recycling unit removed the odor.

Vansen took cover at the corner where she had killed the bald AI. Everything had gone deathly quiet. And she heard something over her helmet radio. McQueen's voice. His transmitter must be jammed open.

"Jim? Jim! Stay with me, buddy. Talk to me."

She could barely hear Avery's reply, he had to be lying right next to McQueen for the helmet to pick him up at all. "It's no use, Ty, I'm busted up real bad. Not gonna make it out of here."

"Shane will come back for us. Just wait for her."

"Jesus -- Ty, it hurts."

"I know. You can do it, Jim."

"Remember -- the time Collins busted her ankle on Mars? I take back everything I said about her whining about it, man, I swear I do. You hear me up there, Collie? I take it all back!"

McQueen laughed a little. Vansen remembered that laugh from Marged. She said a little prayer that the courage behind it could keep Avery alive, just as it had saved her life. Then with a convulsive motion she turned off her radio receiver and forced her full attention to getting the job done. She risked a peek around the corner, expecting shots, but none came. The hatch to the lab was closed and she expected it was barricaded as well. She wasn't getting in that way. So she had to find another way in.

She checked adjacent labs, noted in one the location of a portable laser. But there was no apparent access to the computer lab. Then she remembered something. Computer labs were clean rooms, kept dust-free and overpressurized to prevent foreign particles from getting in and ruining delicate components. That meant that somewhere around here was a separate ventilation system. And she thought she knew where it might be. She found a ceiling hatch in a big storage locker, and stacked some crates to reach it. The panel came open easily, revealing a square hole just big enough for a person to crawl through.

She remembered her father picking her up and putting her into the crawl space, telling her to keep her sisters quiet and take care of them. And the AI's and the gunfire and her parents dead bodies.

She could not climb into that hole.

McQueen's voice echoed in her memory. "You've got to complete the mission." He was counting on her. He believed with all his heart that she would do what had to be done. That she would survive. That she would come back for him and Avery, just as she had promised. McQueen believed in her. She could not let him down. So, blinded by tears of pure terror, she reached up into the hole and pulled herself inside, ignored the scream of protest from her injured shoulder and the gunshot wound on her other arm, and began to crawl forward, pushing her rifle ahead of her. The hole ended in a big metal box with a fan in the top. Air intake. She pulled her k-bar and used the tip to remove the sheet metal screws holding the side of the box in place, struggled out of the box without caring where she was -- she just had to get OUT of that HOLE. She gulped several deep breaths to calm herself and checked her surroundings.

She was in the computer lab's ventilation room, just as she had expected. It was no bigger than a broom closet, and most of the room was taken up by a large air filtration and circulation unit. Right above her, a sealed sheet metal duct led to a square vent in the wall. The vent looked large enough to get through. She climbed up on the air recirculator, careful not to make any noise, and cautiously removed more screws holding the air duct in place. She laid it aside. There was a plastic vent cover in the way, but it wouldn't be a problem.

There were six AI's inside the lab. Their attention was on the hatch, which they had barricaded with some heavy filing cabinets. She opened up on them, most of them fell before they could react and she cut down the last ones before any of them figured out what direction the attack was coming from. She kicked the fragments of the vent cover out of the way and let herself down into the room through the hole in the wall.

"Halt! Stop or you will be destroyed!"

The voice came from a set of speakers on one of the terminals. "Mr. Golem, I presume?"

"I have activated the fire retardant system. If you approach the terminals you will set it off. The chemicals will absorb the oxygen from the air and you will suffocate long before you can escape."

"Glad you told me." She pulled on her breathing mask, it held easily enough oxygen for her to finish the job in here and get out.

"If you leave now, I will let you escape with your life, and rescue your friends without interference. Otherwise they die first and then you join them."

"You've got nothing left to interfere with."

"Ah, but you are wrong, little human. Turn your radio back on if you think I'm bluffing. Or you could always take a chance that I'm lying."

Vansen believed him. But she didn't have a choice. She fought for control and her voice came out cold as ice, all the emotion filed away for later. "Either way, you're dead first." She crossed the room to the terminal, typed the code phrase.

From the speaker, the Golem's mechanical voice screamed, pure terror of impending destruction. She slotted the disk and listed the contents, there was one file. She typed the name. Excalibur. Jim's e-mail alias.

Code started to scroll down the screen. All over the station, hard drives came to life, as Jim's Trojan first prevented the Golem from replicating itself. Then forced the AI to reveal all locations of its programming. And finally began to erase all traces of that programming from the system. It didn't take long, these machines were state of the art. She waited until she was sure the program was finished before she ran back over to the air vent and climbed through.

There was a little maintenance tunnel out of the ventilation room, it led into a part of the surrounding corridor that she hadn't explored yet. She turned her radio back on.

And felt a sudden chill, as if someone had dumped ice water down her back. The Golem hadn't been bluffing. She recognized a third voice out on the catwalk.

"Oh, yes, McQueen, it's really me. What makes you think I'd stay in custody aboard the Saratoga when I could just modem out?! I didn't like leaving that body, there's no telling when I'll get another one, permanently. This one isn't so bad, but I'd really like to have an Elroy -- and I certainly won't be able to stay here on this station in any case. But I can have a lot of fun in the meanwhile, can't I?"

McQueen replied, "How much fun do you think you can have in five mikes, with all this crap on top of me?"

"You organics think you're so different from us silicates, don't you? You don't have programming, after all. You don't have control codes. You're free willed, aren't you? Do you know how wrong you are?

It was very interesting applying the electrodes to your components. You found out how much fun it was back aboard the Saratoga, didn't you? You learned exactly how much of a rush it is to have someone else entirely in your power. How their suffering becomes your pleasure. You didn't know how enjoyable it can be, did you? You certainly didn't believe _you_ could enjoy it. Hold that thought, McQueen. Because now it's my turn again."

Shane ran pell-mell down the corridor to the lab where she'd seen the laser cutter. She was going to need it. Then she charged back to the shaft opening.

Sense overcame panic at the last moment. She couldn't go running up there! If Elroy heard her coming, he would immediately kill McQueen and Avery. Their only chance was for her to ambush the AI. She would have to move slowly to avoid making noise on the metal catwalk. She stopped to take off her boots, leaving only wool socks with gripper soles. She could move silently in them.

The radio crackled and hissed. Elroy must have taken McQueen's helmet off. But he didn't move it far enough that she couldn't still hear what was going on up there.

Elroy asked, "Do you have any idea what this device is?"

"Should I?"

"This device stimulates brain cells. Up until recently, it's been very crude. If I stimulate this area here -- that's your pleasure center. Almost like a woman, isn't it? And here -- hunger. Interesting, isn't it? But not really very useful in interrogation. Until we figured out how you organics store memories.

Didn't you realize we were recording you on Marged? You see, every one of your memories is just a chemical recording in the cells of your brain. And thanks to my access to my brother Elroy's data, I have that whole Marged episode mapped out. Let's just pick out the most interesting parts, shall we? What about this one?"

Vansen heard a click -- and a few moments later, McQueen started cursing Elroy to keep from screaming. She could hear that without the radio.

Elroy's voice was a low purr. "Just like the real thing, isn't it? You're feeling my hands caressing you right now, much more intimately than any of your lovers ever did, aren't you? I can replay this loop over and over again, it won't stop and because there's no actual physical injury this time, you won't go into shock and lose consciousness. I can make this go on for the rest of your life, you know. That won't be very long, but after -- oh, say an hour of this, without a moment of relief -- you'll be happy when I finally cut your throat, won't you, McQueen?"

"Go to hell!"

"We know all about hell, don't we? You know, right now all we can do is record the location of your memories and stimulate your brain to replay them. In time, we're going to learn enough about the nature of human memories to write new ones. Then we'll be able to reprogram organics. It's a real pity you won't be around for that. I'd have liked very much to put you in your proper place."

McQueen replied, "There's nothing new about brainwashing. There've been drugs and other psychoactive techniques around for a hundred years. So you think you can improve on all that? All you'll do is give us that much more reason to junk the lot of you!"

There was the sound of a blow, then Vansen heard McQueen groan in agony. She risked moving faster.

She stopped right below Elroy. She could shoot up through the catwalk -- but there was just too much chance a missed shot or a ricochet could hit her friends. Carefully she climbed the gangway. _Ty, keep him busy! Don't let him look down here_! Elroy was kneeling over McQueen, he laid whatever he was holding down on the catwalk just out of McQueen's reach. "Ask me to kill you, McQueen. Say please and I'll make it stop."

Vansen reached the top of the gangway, her eyes met McQueen's. She never knew how he kept from showing any sign whatsoever that she was there. He kept his voice almost normal -- it was that "almost" that twisted a knife in Vansen's guts. "What makes you think I'd ask you for the time of day?"

Vansen took one step, another, balanced on the balls of her feet. Her hand twisted in the back of Elroy's collar. "Hey, Elroy, if you manage to modem out before you hit bottom, think about me whenever you access this little memory, okay? Shane Vansen!" With that she heaved him up over the rail and let him drop. Momentarily, there was a very loud thud as he hit the deck at least ten levels down. She looked over briefly to make sure he wasn't moving and then turned back to McQueen. He was wearing a headset connected to a device no bigger than a deck of cards. She yanked off the headset, McQueen gasped a couple of deep breaths.

Vansen said, "I'll have you out of here in a minute, Ty. Where's Jim?"

"He's right beside me, Shane, but I don't think he made it. I don't think he's breathing any more."

Vansen felt tears start up again, she had come to be very fond of their hacker friend. Very carefully, she cut up the metal wreckage into pieces small enough to throw off them. McQueen was right, Avery was dead. They couldn't get his body out, they were going to have enough just to get themselves back to the launch. Vansen unfolded the survival blanket from her kit and covered him with it, weighing down the corners with pieces of metal scrap. It was all they could do.

She had to half-carry McQueen at first, but after a little while the circulation came back to his legs and he could walk on his own. Vansen kept expecting something else to pop out at them, but they were the only living things on the station. They made it back to the launch and closed the hatch, helped each other up to the cockpit. Vansen powered up systems and disengaged from the docking ring, brought them about.

Straight into the arms of the devil. They cleared the shadow of the Sylurra station, and found themselves right in the gunsights of an Aerotech cutter. A hard voice demanded, "Power down your guns and stand by to be boarded."

Vansen looked over at McQueen, it looked like Aerotech was going to get the chance to arrange their disappearance after all. But it was okay. They'd gotten the job done first. McQueen reached across and covered her hand with his. The one thing they both knew for sure was that they were not going aboard that cutter.

Another voice came over the radio. "I wouldn't even consider taking that launch in tow if I were you, skipper. It belongs to me. And those are my people aboard her."

"Really? Who says?"

"I'm Commodore Glen Ross, commanding the USS Saratoga. We're lying right off your port stern, son. Power down your guns and shove off!"

The cutter's skipper blustered something about Aerotech property not being under military jurisdiction. Ross replied, "Do you really want to be around here to argue the point when I find what I think I'm going to find aboard that station?"

The cutter took off full speed ahead for the wormhole. McQueen spoke into the pickup. "Permission to come aboard, sir."

Ross' rich chuckle filled the channel. "Granted. Bring her home, Colonel."

They wasted no time obeying that order. A boarding party was climbing onto an ISSAPC to be ferried over to the Sylurra station when they came into the bay. The rest of the Wild Cards were waiting down there, too.

Ross strode into the bay. "What the hell happened to you? I send you two to a damn hospital ship and you come back here looking like hell."

"Sorry about that, sir."

"You didn't bust up my launch, did you?"

"No, sir." In a lower voice, he asked, "How did you know to come after us?"

"Jim Avery sent me some encrypted e-mail explaining what was going on. It took me a couple of days to find someone good enough to break his damn code! Where is he?"

"He didn't make it, Glen."

Ross shared their grief. Avery had been a good friend.

"Do you need to go by sickbay?"

"I don't think so, sir."

"Then go get yourselves cleaned up. Debriefing in half an hour."

They walked together back to the Wild Cards quarters, parted at the hatch. Vansen crossed to her locker a few steps away and pulled out a clean uniform, ducked into the shower. It was good to be home.


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