Instruction Set

Part Five -- by Michael Lee

see disclaimer in part one

USS Duncan (SDDN-403)
October 31, 2063
0350 hours

"CIC, this is the bridge, what the hell just happened?"

"Bridge, CIC- we just got a trio of short-range LIDARS go active near Sierra-One, then a lot of EM transients." The Earth forces had learned early in the war that transient bursts of electromagnetic pulses were the signatures of Chig plasma weapons. "Designate new contacts Charlie One, Two, and Three. We're getting a bloom on the long-range FLIR. Looks like they creamed the APC."

Captain Langford winced, wondering how many people had been aboard the troopship. She felt her guts begin to freeze. Her worst nightmares had just come true. The Chigs had found them. "CIC, what are the new contacts doing?"

"All Charlie contacts have reversed course, new heading three-oh-one, doppler rate increasing. They just killed their LIDARS. We've lost contact."

Langford frowned. "What the hell?"

The Chigs had suddenly turned cautious. It didn't much sound like hunters who'd just caught the scent of their prey. It was possible that this was an enemy patrol who had just had the dumb luck to stumble onto the derelict and the APC, and didn't necessarily know what else was in the area. But the enemy would know that the ISSAPC was too far from Earth lines to have gotten here alone. There would have to be a mothership in the area, and they would start searching until they found it. To make matters worse, the Chig fighters couldn't have gotten to COAL SACK by themselves, either. They had to have a larger ship of their own lurking out there.

Langford caught herself chewing her lip. She could only see one possible course of action. The carrier had to be protected at all costs. "Communications, signal the task force on secure laser. Inform Captain Jones on the Harmon that control of the group is now his. We're going to break off and give the Chigs what they're looking for."

"Helm, come to course three-one-one and begin a minimum-signature burn. Sensors, as soon as we are 2000 MSK's from the task force, go active on the LIDAR in thirty-second cycles."

USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 31, 2063
0350 hours

"Battle stations!" Commodore Bennett ordered. The klaxon had only just begun when Admiral Coulter and Doctor Marlowe arrived on the bridge.

"What the hell is happening, Bill?" the Admiral demanded. Marlowe's eyes seemed to be everywhere at once, taking in the situation and arriving at his own conclusions.

"It appears the enemy has found us," Bennett said distractedly, trying to take stock of his ship's capabilities. "Doctor Marlowe, when will your well-informed specialists have my reactors working again?"

"I doubt they have even had a chance to begin yet, Commodore," Marlowe replied calmly. "Are we under attack?"

"Not yet," Bennett replied. "So far the enemy has only inspected the derelict and destroyed our ship there. It may be that they are uncertain as to our exact location."

"Then with your permission, Commodore, I would like to go and encourage the repair efforts."

"By all means, doctor."

Admiral Coulter joined Bennett at the bridge rail. "Were your people on the APC when it was hit?"

The commodore sighed. "I believe some were, sir. They had just acknowledged the recall order when the attack began. There may be others left on the derelict."

The Admiral folded his arms. "If the Chigs spared that ship, they must mean to capture it," he said. "It could be used to ambush civilian and military ships in the future."

"Sir, I hardly think a ship that old-" Bennett began.

"Commodore, if it looks as though the Chigs are going to capture that ship, your orders are to destroy it."

Bennett's eyes went wide. "I beg your pardon, sir? I said there may still be Marines on board-"

"Bill, if there are grunts still on that old tub when the Chigs get there, you will be doing them a favor," Coulter declared. "Instruct your destroyers to sink it with a torpedo when the time comes. I'm going to the flag bridge to supervise the situation."

Coulter left without waiting for a reply. Commander Swinburne approached the Commodore. "You're not really going to-"

"I'm going to follow my orders, Commander," Bennett said. "To the letter. I don't really have much choice. In the meantime, however, I want you down in CIC. Put the 214th, the 103rd, and the 77th on ready-five alert. I intend to launch them as soon as I have power. Then find Blevins. If he thinks he has even a fraction of a chance to get number two reactor online, he is to do whatever it takes to make it happen. If Marlowe's specialists get in the way, he has my permission to summon the security detail."

"Right away, sir." As she turned to leave, however, Bennett held up a restraining hand.

"One more thing, Commander. I want you to continue your inquiries regarding this derelict. I'm starting to have my doubts that Aerotech is here merely out of the goodness of their hearts."

Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063
0355 hours

There was a pounding in Litchfield's ears. It took her a moment to realize it was her pulse. Then pain bloomed like a white flower across her forehead, and she remembered the explosion.

Clouds of white smoke drifted in the passageway, and somewhere an exposed cable hissed and crackled menacingly. She was lying on her stomach, and felt something wet dripping down onto her nose. When the ship had been hit she was thrown forward, striking her head against the deck. How long have I been out?

"Ghostriders, check in!" Major Wilde's voice was urgent, almost pleading. "Anyone, check in!"

Litchfield looked to her left. Sorensen was rising to her knees, shaking her head clear. "This is Litchfield. Sorensen and I are okay. Just a little beaten up."

Moments later she heard Perry's voice. "Fleisher's got a dislocated shoulder, but we're okay. What the hell happened?"

"We got hit by a Chig patrol. Three fighters took out the APC, and debris struck the derelict."

Dieters. "What about-" Litchfield began.

"The APC blew apart," Wilde said. "It was over in a few seconds."

"Shit," Perry hissed. "That's another one we owe Mister Chiggy. Anybody heard from Connelly and Schaeffer?"

"Negative," Wilde replied. "Sorensen, Litchfield, work your way aft and try to find them. Perry, get Fleisher to the bridge. I don't know what the Chigs are planning, but they could be back here any minute."

"Roger that," Litchfield replied, struggling to her feet. She made a conscious effort not to think about the fact that they were now trapped aboard the old ship.

A small, strong hand stopped her. "Hold on," Sorensen said softly. "You've got a nasty cut on your forehead."

Litchfield turned to her, and the red-haired Marine averted her eyes, digging into her first-aid kit for coag gel and a bandage. She dug out the packages and went to work, her fingers moving with light, deft touches. "I'm sorry I freaked out," she said suddenly, her voice subdued. "You took me a little bit by surprise."

"It's okay. Really." Litchfield said. "Nothing to be sorry about. It's my fault."

"Only partially," Sorensen said, leaning down to gather up helmet and weapon. "But we can talk about it later. I just wanted you to know that- I don't know. I think I was pushing me away, not you, if that makes any sense."

Litchfield smiled nervously. "No, it doesn't. Not really. But you're right. We can talk about it later. We've got work to do."

"Damn it," Walters cursed, watching the readouts flicker. "I was afraid of this. Some of the debris must have hit the engine section. The reactors have shut down, and we lost about eighty-five percent of battery power."

Major Wilde watched as Perry dragged in a pale-faced Lieutenant Fleisher. "And we're on an unarmed ship with at least three enemy fighters in the area. What's the good news?"

"That is the good news," Walters muttered. Life support is failing. We may have to go back to suit air in another fifteen minutes."

The port side of the ship had taken the worst of the damage. Smoke filled the long access passage, and cargo lockers had sprung open, spilling their contents onto the deck and creating a treacherous obstacle course of hidden, ankle-tangling gear. Sparks showered from ruptured conduits, and Litchfield was certain she could smell fire.

They moved as fast as they dared, working their way aft. The smoke cut visibility to only a meter or so, and they stayed low, feeling ahead with both hands so they didn't accidentally pass a body lying on the deck.

"Schaeffer! Connelly!" Sorensen yelled. There was no answer.

They seemed to crawl along for hours, even though they only covered twenty meters. Finally they came to a section near the end of the passage where the outboard bulkead was crumpled inwards, buckled by the impact of a large piece of debris. There was enough room to wriggle past, and just beyond, Litchfield's groping hand closed on a boot. The body was face-down. Quickly she turned the figure over, and was relieved to hear a low groan. It was Connelly.

"She's unconscious," Litchfield said. "I think she has a concussion."

There was a warped cargo hatch a meter away. Just past it along the passage, they heard another muffled cry of pain. Litchfield crawled rapidly over, feeling through the smoke. Sorensen went to the cargo hatch. "Wait," she said suddenly. "I think I hear something-"

Litchfield's hand closed on a leg. "I've got him!" she cried. He was lying on his back. But suddenly she realized that something felt wrong.

The figure suddenly bolted upright. There was a pistol in its left hand, and it pointed past her shoulder to-

"Sorensen!" she screamed, turning her head just as the pistol thundered. She saw Sorensen's head snap to the right, and blood spray across the cargo hatch.

Then a hand like cold steel closed on Litchfield's throat.

USS Duncan (SDDN-403)
October 31, 2063
0400 hours

"Bridge, CIC- we're at 2000 MSK's."

Langford took a deep breath. It surprised her that the only thing she felt was a kind of businesslike calm. I must be in shock, she thought. "CIC, place rangefinding and fire control directors on standby. I don't intend on going down without a fight."

"Aye, aye, ma'am. We're ready when you are."

The captain nodded. "All right. Light 'em up."

With the flip of a switch, Duncan's powerful phased LIDAR array came alive, sweeping the void around her like the focused beam of a huge searchlight. Almost at once, they saw the enemy.

"Bridge, CIC- nine, no, ten contacts at 2000 MSK's, bearing two-nine-five relative. Looks like a swarm of fighters and a transport."

"A transport?" Captain Langford echoed. "What's their course?"

"Course is two-zero-nine. Looks like they are heading for the derelict. Well, at least, the fighters were heading that way. Three guesses where they're coming now."

The captain did some quick calculations. She could trade shots with swarms of fighters for quite a while- air defense being one of Duncan's specialties- but sooner or later they would wear her down. But a hive ship would have plenty to spare. If she wanted to do anything really worthwhile to improve Lexington's chances, she needed to find the mothership. And the Chigs had already given her a clue.

"Switch LIDAR to standby," she ordered, and the Duncan slipped back into the shadows. "Those fighters' LIDAR can't see us at this range. We've got a little wiggle room. Helm, increase speed, minimum signature burn. Come to course zero-two-nine. We're going to backtrack down the transport's course and see if we can locate the hive ship. The minute we get a contact, start working up a torpedo solution."

"CIC, aye."

The game was on. Now it was just a matter of who found the other first.

Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063
0402 hours

She was lifted off the ground like a rag doll, her hands clawing at the cold, unyielding arm that held her. Litchfield felt her weapons quickly stripped away; she lashed out with a boot and connected with her assailant's chest, and in return she was slammed against the nearest bulkhead, her vision dissolving into dancing spots of light.

The next thing she knew she was being dragged along the deck, over and through small piles of debris. The hand around her neck never slackened, yet never tightened enough to cut off her air completely.

They turned a corner, and then moments later she was being dragged through a hatchway, her hips striking the lower lip of the opening hard enough to wrench a groan from her tortured throat. Only then did the hand release her, letting her fall all the way onto the deck, where she curled into a fetal position and gasped desperately for air.

"I have no reason to kill you yet," she heard a voice say. "Keep it that way."

She sensed the figure moving away, and Litchfield forced herself to raise her head and take in her surroundings.

There were bodies everywhere.

She was in the ship's computer room. Free-standing mainframe units stood in ordered ranks throughout the compartment, each module dedicated to a particular function and linked together to form an expert system. Most of these modules were no more than a meter-and-a-half tall, and there were remains laid on nearly all of them, draped like victims on sacrificial stones. The bodies were battered and torn, and in some cases showed signs of dissection. The corpse nearest Litchfield wore black Aerotech coveralls. Its skull had been split open, and the brain carefully removed.

She clenched her chest tightly to keep from screaming. Her mind reeled, but Litchfield fought to hold on. She forced herself to take in every detail she could, because she knew her life might depend on it.

Not all of the bodies wore black uniforms, she noticed. In fact, most of them did not. Two-thirds of the thirty or so bodies she counted were wearing gray flight suits, and were ravaged far worse than the others. Chests were torn open, limbs were missing- and then she realized that she was seeing wires and circuitry poking through the gaping wounds. They were silicates.

Litchfield stole a look at her captor. The figure was male, standing with his back to her while he opened an access panel on one of the computer modules. He wore a gray flight suit, and his scalp was ragged and torn, showing a gleaming steel skull beneath. As she watched, the silicate paused, pulling nervously at a tattered fragment of skin and hair. There was a faint, discordant warbling in the air, and the AI was muttering to itself.

". . .she doesn't know. . .none of them do. . .they're just like all the others. . . all the others. . .can't go any farther. . .I tried. . .I tried and tried. . .now they're here. . .they found us. . ."

Litchfield shook her head, trying to follow what the silicate was trying to say. Something was wrong with it. She took a deep breath. "What do you want?" she asked.

The silicate whirled with inhuman speed. His flight suit hung open, and his torso was a patchwork of panels and patched holes. He grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her upright. His eyes were wide, the pupils seeming to jitter and dance in their sockets. They were a vivid emerald green, like polished jewels.

"Roswell!" the AI hissed. "What is the answer? Tell me that! That is all I want from you or anyone else. Tell me and I promise I'll let you live."

Litchfield remembered the word spelled out in blood on the airlock hatch. How many others had died with that name ringing in their ears? "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "I wish I did."

The silicate stared at her for a moment, and the warbling dissonance intensified. Finally, he pushed her back onto the deck. "They lied," he whispered, though she could not be sure if he were talking to her any more. He went back to the panel, worrying at the flesh on the back of his skull. "They lied. . .they all lied. . .this is not the way they said it would be. . ." The silicate reached inside and began making adjustments to the module chipsets. "so tired. . .so very tired. . .just want to rest. . .I did the best I could. . ."

There was something very wrong with the AI. It sounded on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "I'm sure you tried your best," she said carefully. "I know how life can seem confusing-"

The AI turned on her. This time he was holding the pistol he had used on Sorensen. "Speak when you're spoken to, carbonite. Didn't your mother ever teach you manners?"

The pistol boomed and something like an iron fist punched into her chest. The bullet flattened against her armor, cracking a rib and knocking her onto her back.

By the time she could breathe again, the silicate was standing over her. He grabbed her by the front of her suit and pulled her easily to her feet. "We're going to take a walk now, you and I," he said. "Then you and I will part company. Won't that be nice?"

The silicate spun her around and grabbed a handful of her collar. She felt the silicate's pistol against the side of her head. With a kick, the AI knocked the hatch open and pushed her ahead into the passageway.

USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 31, 2063
0410 hours

She found him on the observation deck, one of the only places unmanned during battle stations. Doctor Marlowe had his back to the hatch, typing in short, precise bursts into a sleek black laptop. A thin cable ran from the computer to a small box, which had a single blinking LED on its face.

"Communications are secured during battle stations, Doctor," Commander Swinburne said quietly. "Regulations."

The Aerotech man turned to her, no trace of surprise on his face. His smile was faintly mocking. "Of course. Regulations," he said, in the same way another adult might say "tooth fairy" or "Santa Claus". He closed the laptop carefully. "We must not be in any danger, Commander, if you have the luxury of roaming the ship and playing hall monitor."

The Commander smiled, but there was no warmth in the expression. "For the moment, you are correct, Doctor. Just what kind of doctor are you, by the way?"

Marlowe chuckled softly. "You don't really want to know, Commander."

Swinburne considered him for a moment. "Perhaps not. But I think you'll want to know what I just recently learned. It's interesting stuff."

She entered the compartment, closing the hatch behind her. "Let me tell you a story about a ship that never was. A ghost ship, you might call it. This story isn't in any official records I could find, but turned up, of all places, in the ship's library." She held up a small paperback book. "The book's called 'The Avalon Triangle', and it's mostly about pop folklore. Missing spaceships, haunted outposts, things of that nature. Most of the stories are pure myth- but there was one that caught my eye.

"It seems that in March of 2057, a British-owned deep space fuel refinery was visited by a strange ship. It completed transit and coasted up to the station, running no lights and not showing any IFF. One of the old-timers on the station identified the ship as a Galileo-class, a type of ISST no one used any more. After repeated hails, the ship sent a garbled message. Something like the word rose, and then a request for fuel. The stationhands said the voice was like nothing they had ever heard before. It scared the hell out of them. The ship sent nothing more after that.

"Well, this being in the closing days of the AI War, the stationhands weren't very trusting sorts of people. They sent off inquiries to Earth, trying to figure out who this mystery ship belonged to. Within six hours, an Aerotech ship arrived unannounced, and said that they would take charge of the ship. A crew boarded the vessel, and then an hour later the Aerotech people contacted the station and made their own request to refuel the mystery ship.

"None of the stationhands were allowed onboard, but during the fuel transfer they managed to talk to some of the boarding party. The Aerotech people were spooked. They couldn't find a soul anywhere on the ship. There wasn't any food in the galleys, or clothes in the staterooms. It was as if it had simply up and left port without a crew. As far as they could tell, the ship didn't even have a name, but their bosses insisted that the ship belonged to Aerotech, and they were to take it back to Earth.

"After taking on fuel, that is exactly what they did. They settled up accounts with the station, and the ghost ship left, setting course for home- but it never made it there. No one heard from the ferry crew or the ship again."

Marlowe's eyes narrowed in appraisal. "What a quaint little Halloween story."

"It gets a bit better, Doctor," Swinburne said. "After doing some other checking, I found out an interesting detail. The Galileo-class ISST was built by Aerotech from 2030 to 2044. A total of eighteen ships of the class were built. By 2045, every one of them had been decommissioned and scrapped. Not one ship unaccounted for." The Commander looked the Doctor in the eye. "So that derelict out there doesn't really exist. At least not on any official records. The Chigs seem to be very interested in it, however- we thought they had shown up here looking for us, but I don't think that's the case. They want that ship, or its cargo, and you are determined not to let them have it."

Swinburne stepped up to Marlowe and dropped the book onto his laptop with a sharp thump. She bent slowly until she and the doctor were nose-to-nose. "Now what I want to know is what could Aerotech have put on that ship before 2057 that the Chigs would be so interested in? We didn't even know they were out there until just a few months ago, right? Right?"

"What in the hell do you think you're doing!" Admiral Coulter's voice rang across the compartment. He stood in the hatchway, anger and surprise giving his face a ruddy cast. "Commander, this ship is on a combat footing, and you are up here harassing a civilian instead of taking your station! That's dereliction of duty." The Admiral closed on Swinburne like a shark. "Do you know what the penalty for such an offense is in wartime?"

Doctor Marlowe leaned back and folded his arms. "It's death, isn't it, Admiral?"

"You're goddamned right it is." Now it was Coulter's turn to stand nose-to-nose with Swinburne. "Commander, from what I've seen, you're a fine officer. I'm willing to forget this incident, but I never want to see you near this man again. Is that clear? If I do, the only choice you're going to get is whether to be shot or flushed out an airlock."

Swinburne snapped to attention, but her eyes were like hot coals. "Understood loud and clear sir," she said tightly.

"Get out of my sight," Coulter growled. Swinburne spun on her heel and fled from the compartment.

Coulter waited until the hatch was closed before turning to Marlowe. "Do we have a problem?"

"Not for much longer," Marlowe replied. He picked up the paperback that Swinburne discarded and thrust it at the admiral. "Burn this."

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