Part Six -- by Michael Lee
see disclaimer in part one
USS Duncan (SDDN-403)
October 31, 2063
"CIC, bridge- anything yet?" Captain Langford asked. "I'm running short on fingernails."
The tactical plot showed the Chig fighters spread out like a net behind them, sweeping space with their short-range LIDARs. They were relentless as bloodhounds, and they were getting closer.
"Bridge, CIC- no ma'am. Mister Chiggy is playing it close to the chest. He's got to be close by, though-"
Suddenly alarms echoed across the bridge. Suddenly the tactical plot showed twelve more LIDAR cones appear- directly in front of the Duncan. Another swarm of enemy fighters, waiting with their sensors off until their range would overlap that of the pursuing ships. They had been found.
"Activate LIDAR and switch anti-aircraft systems to automatic," Langford ordered. "Helm, evasive action!"
Then all hell broke loose.
Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063
They turned left down a short access passage, and then they were at the aft end of the long portside accessway. Smoke still choked the passage, but the silicate drove Litchfield ahead ruthlessly. At several points she stumbled, but the AI's hand held her upright as though she hung from a hook.
She tried to think of anything she could to fight back, but nothing seemed possible. Her chest ached, and it hurt just to breathe. She had no doubt that any attempt at resistance would be dealt with brutally. The silicate was inhumanly strong and fast, worse than the wildest stories she had ever heard. All she could do was plunge forward and hope.
The discordant warbling continued as they went, and the AI began to mutter again. This time she knew better than to reply.
"kept it safe -- kept it safe -- so long -- can't do it any more -- can't"
They passed the spot where she had found Connelly, and Sorensen had been shot. She couldn't see either of them for the haze, and she was glad for that. A spray of blood still painted the sprung hatch, sending a spike of pain through her heart.
Just a few meters from the main corridor junction she saw Perry and Marshall come around the corner. There wasn't even time to shout before the AI fired.
The silicate must have been as suprised as she was. Bullets sparked and ricocheted down the passage, and the two Marines bolted back around the corner. "I've got one of your little Marines, carbonites!" the AI shouted after them. "Stay out of my way, or her blood is on your hands."
They advanced steadily to the junction. Without warning, the AI thrust her around the corner. A cry sprang from Litchfield's throat as she expected to be torn apart in a hail of bullets. But nothing happened. Heads peered around the corners of the main passageway junction a few meters ahead. Marshall, Wilde, Walters, and Perry. Their weapons were steady, but the silicate was careful, making good use of her as a shield.
The AI began to pull her backwards. She realized that they were backing down the portside airlock accessway. "I don't think you are good enough to hit me without killing your friend," the silicate said. "All I want is to get off the ship. Let me pass and I'll let her go."
The silicate was lying. He was up to something, Litchfield knew. Something with the main computer -- but what?
They reached the airlock door. Her mind raced. Where could the AI go? Outside the ship? What would be the point? She saw Marshall lean a little further out from cover, to keep an eye on her. He had his IR goggles pushed up onto his forehead. Suddenly, Litchfield realized that he didn't have his helmet on. None of them did.
She understood what the AI was going to do.
Normally, an airlock had safety overrides to keep both the inner and outer doors from opening at the same time, which prevented the chance of explosive decompression. The silicate had removed those overrides. He intended to decompress the ship, killing everyone on board in a matter of moments.
There was a hiss as the inner door slid open. Litchfield began to twist in the silicate's grip, but could shake its unyielding grasp. "No! Don't!"
The silicate smiled, backing carefully into the airlock. He would have to be quick. It would take one hand to open the outer door and the other to hold on until the escaping cyclone of air had abated. He raised the pistol to the female carbonite's head. "Don't worry," he said softly. "This ship is full of ghosts. You'll be in good company."
He took another step back- and stopped abruptly as his head butted into something. It was small and round, like the barrel of a gun. He froze. Suddenly a voice spoke in his ear.
The silicate spun, letting go of Litchfield and bringing his gun around, but all Dieters had to do was twitch his finger on the trigger. The AI's head blew apart in a burst of automatic fire.
USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 31, 2063
"What's our status," Admiral Coulter demanded.
Commodore Bennett replied without taking his eyes from the tactical board. "It appears that they've found the Duncan," he said grimly. "Langford is buying us time with her life. How much longer until the reactors are operational? If I could get my fighters in the air-"
"You'll know the minute its available," Coulter said flatly. "What about the derelict?"
Bennett clasped his hands behind his back, and for the first time in his life found himself weighing conscience over duty. Finally, he reluctantly said, "We've detected a new LIDAR source. A transport appears to be en route to the ship."
Coulter nodded. "You have your orders, then."
"Sir, there could still be Marines on that ship!" Bennett said angrily.
The Admiral took the outburst dispassionately. "Are you forcing me to relieve you on grounds of insubordination, Commodore?"
Bennett sighed. "No, sir."
"Then I expect to see that ship destroyed. Carry out your orders."
"Aye, aye sir."
Coulter left the bridge. The Commodore waited until he was gone and turned to a nearby ensign. "Get me Commander Blevins. Right now!"
Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063
Litchfield noticed that her breath was making plumes in the air. "Why is it getting colder?" she asked as Perry lowered her to the deck.
"The life support gave out a few minutes ago," Wilde explained. The unit had fallen back to the bridge to try and regroup after a boisterous welcome for Dieters. The InVitro sat wearily beside Litchfield, looking happy but a little uncomfortable with all the attention. "We've got air for a little while, but the temperature is going to drop sharply over the next twenty minutes or so, then we will have to seal up in the suits again. Which will give us about a half hour of air, no more." She turned to Walters. "Try to get on the communications board and send a signal to the Lexington. We've got to get some kind of evac."
Walters went over to the console as Fleisher and Marshall entered the compartment, carrying Connelly and Sorensen. Litchfield felt her heart stop at the sight of all the blood. "Is she-"
"They're both okay, more or less." Marshall said. "Sorensen got creased across her forehead. She's probably got a cracked skull, which is serious, but not immediately life-threatening. Schaeffer is stuck in one of the port cargo bays. We'll have to get something to open the hatch."
"Use one of the breaching charges we brought," Wilde said.
"Oh, shit!" Walters exclaimed.
"What?" Wilde said.
Walters pointed to a flashing readout on the console next to the comm station. "We're being hit by active LIDAR. Signal's too strong to be a fighter, so it must be a bomber or transport. It's coming from the same direction those Chig fighters came from. I think we're going to have company in a few minutes."
Major Wilde took a deep breath. "Then we'd better get busy with the welcoming party."
USS Duncan (SDDN-403)
October 31, 2063
Another explosion rocked the ship, and this time the lights went out. Moments later, red emergency lighting flooded the bridge.
"Damage control report!" Langford cried. The words came out like a honk through her broken nose.
"Fire on deck nine! We're losing power on number one reactor. If they hit us with another of those missles, we're gonna crack like an egg!"
Langford wiped blood on her sleeve and bared her teeth. "CIC, have you got anything yet on that hive ship? Anything?"
"No ma'am. We're still trying."
Someone at the tactical station cried out. "Another swarm of fighters coming in to port!
Langford cursed and tried to keep her ship together a few minutes more.
Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063
The Chig transport slid silently towards the drifting hulk, moving to the starboard side of the ship. After a few moments, there was a gentle thud as the two ships mated airlocks.
The Ghostriders awaited their enemy in darkness. After evacuating the air from the ship, they moved into one of the port cargo holds ruptured when the APC had been destroyed. A large hole gave them an unobstructed view of the stars.
"This doesn't make any sense," Wilde said. "There's a carrier out there, helpless, and they want to come look over this ship instead."
Suddenly Litchfield spoke up. "That silicate who caught me was saying a lot of strange things. When he spoke to me, he was all threatening and confident, but then when he was done with me he would start mumbling to himself. He sounded weary. Even frightened. It was almost like there were two people inside his head. He kept saying that he couldn't run anymore. He said he had kept something safe as long as he could, but someone lied to him."
Marshall and Wilde shared looks. "You thought the ship was on the run," the captain said. "What if it was running from the Chigs?"
"But why? From what we can tell, the AI's are working with the Chigs, not against them."
Litchfield shrugged. "It's possible this one was completely nuts. His head was making a terrible noise the entire time."
Marshall frowned. "What kind of noise?"
"A warbling sound. Almost like an off-key modem."
"Litchfield, that was a modem. That's how the AI's exchange information."
"Wait a minute," Wilde said. "If it was operating its modem, who was it communicating with?"
Marshall suddenly looked uncomfortable. "There's another one around here? But where? Why didn't it come out and help the other one?"
"Maybe that was the muttering voice I was hearing," Litchfield said. "Maybe there really were two people inside its head. If that was the case, the second one didn't sound much like a killer, Gunny."
Marshall snorted. "Litchfield, they're all killers, trust me."
"Not the uninfected ones," Wilde suddenly said.
"You're saying that there's an uninfected AI around here somewhere?" Marshall asked incredulously.
Wilde shrugged. "I don't know how, but that's the only thing that fits."
"Hey, people," Walters interrupted. "I'm getting something."
Walters sat hunched over a portable video monitor scrounged from the commons area. It showed a view of the starboard airlock accessway from floor level. When Wilde came up with her plan to ambush the Chigs, the only hitch had been to find some means of monitoring the enemy's movements inside the ship. When Walters asked for parts, Litchfield had joking mentioned all the AI parts in the computer room. But Walters jumped on the idea. What were the silicates' eyes, after all, but high-resolution cameras?"
The armored aliens entered the accessway, seeming to take little notice of the silicate "corpse" that was watching them. They saw the blood along the airlock wall, and then noticed the word ROSWELL when the airlock door slid shut.
"Hope it gives them the creeps, too," Fleisher muttered.
"That reminds me of something else the AI said." Litchfield interjected. "He asked me what the answer was to Roswell. I couldn't figure it out."
Walters frowned. "An answer?"
Marshall suddenly turned to Wilde. "An answer. Like a countersign. Maybe Roswell is a password. A security protocol. Maybe the ship is somehow guarding something."
"Mister Chiggy is moving," Walters said. "One of them is carrying something. Maybe a portable sensor. He's leading the way. They're headed aft."
"How many are there?" Wilde asked.
"Looks like twenty-one. About a platoon."
Wilde checked her oxygen reading. They had less than fifteen minutes left. "Might as well go out in style," she said. "Let's go give 'em hell."
The unit climbed carefully to their feet and crept out of the cargo bay- through the hole in the outboard bulkhead. Using their IR lamps, the Marines began to move over the hull.
"Talk to me, Walters," Wilde said. "Where are they going?"
"Still headed aft," he replied. Looks like they're going for the computer room."
"Okay. Just about fifteen more meters."
A few minutes later they stood on the hull over the access passage to the computer room. Wilde turned to Marshal. "Do it." Then she turned to Walters. "Where are they?"
The Marine simply pointed straight down.
"Okay." Wilde looked at Marshall. "Ready?"
The captain stood. Two breaching charges were affixed to the bulkhead. "Ready. I think you guys want to take a couple of steps back. These are shaped charges, but the blast can take you by surprise."
Wilde backed up slowly, grinning like a wolf. "Not nearly as surprised as Mister Chiggy is going to be…"
USS Duncan (SCVN-403)
October 31, 2063
"Bridge, CIC- nine contacts, bearing three-five-zero relative. Looks like bombers."
Langford's heart sank. They were finished. They had beaten off the last fighter attack, and it looked like they had gotten a little breathing room. The Chigs had just been distracting them long enough to get their bombers into position. There was no way the battered destroyer could catch all their missles.
The hive ship had never shown itself. It had been a good try, she thought. A good try. Maybe at least it would be enough to save the carrier.
She was about to order the crew to abandon ship when suddenly a shout came over the intercom. "Bridge, CIC- I've got thirty-six LIDAR emissions dead aft at 50 MSK's!"
"Good Lord," Langford said. No one would escape. There was no way. "Looks like the Chigs are going to make certain they get us this time."
"No, ma'am- they're ours!" the tactical officer cried. "The Lexington's launched fighters!"
For a moment, Langford couldn't believe her ears. It sounded corny, but the Cavalry had arrived. "CIC, what are the bombers doing?"
"About what you'd expect with thirty-six Marine aviators headed their way," the tactical officer replied with a nervous laugh. "But I don't think they're going to get far."
Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063
The Ghostriders dropped through the hole the charges made, their weapons ready, but there was nothing left to fight. The Chigs lay in dissolving pieces scattered all along the accessway.
"Hoo-Yah," Wilde muttered, surveying the destruction. There was a low buzzing in her ears. The air was getting thin. Pretty soon, they would all just go to sleep. Before that happened, though, she wanted some answers.
"Spread out," she told the unit. "Work your way back to the airlock and check for stragglers." As the Marines moved out, she stepped inside the computer room.
There were three dead Chigs inside, standing around a hole in the deck. A part of the flooring had been pulled up, revealing some sort of compartment beneath. Wilde peered cautiously inside, then, seeing no one, lowered herself down.
It was a natural extension of the computer room above. The cabinets were larger than they had appeared, extending down another level. There were a sophisticated layer of connections linking all the modules to yet another memory core. Suddenly Wilde understood.
She had found the other AI.
Someone had given the ship a silicate brain to serve as its central computer, but had done so secretly, perhaps as a last resort. A security measure, in case the crew became compromised?
Wilde considered the ship's original crew of AI's. They had been compromised at some point by the Stranahan virus. Somehow the central unit had avoided the infection. It was possible that the crew wasn't equipped for two-way communication with the central unit. The hidden AI only had one function- to protect something. To keep it safe until someone came along with the proper password. And it had been true to its instructions, even after the ship's mission had gone to hell. Ironically, without the freedom of the take a chance virus, the AI had been trapped by the limited instruction set that it had been given upon creation. It had been forced to haunt empty systems, waiting for a single word that could set it free.
The major surveyed the room. Suddenly she saw a hatch, beyond the computer modules. Another hidden compartment. The hidden cargo, she realized.
She noticed that her cheeks were tingling. Glancing at her oxygen readout, she saw that it was flashing a dull, final red. Before she went, she wanted to know what was behind that door.
"Major! Major!" Walters voice echoed over the radio. "The Chig transport has disengaged from the airlock and run like hell."
Wilde sighed. "Okay, Lieutenant, what's the bad news?"
"That is the bad news ma'am," he replied excitedly. The good news is that there's an APC out here from the Lady Lex! They're waiting to evacuate us!"
Resignation melted at the news. Suddenly her curiosity had very persuasive competition. Taking a last look at the door, she sighed. She was always going to wonder about this one.
"Okay, Lieutenant. I'm on the way."
Climbing out of the hole, Wilde came face to face with the collapsed armor of the enemy platoon leader. One hand held some sort of remote sensor, while the other was clutched around some sort of greenish ball, a little smaller than an orange. It gave off a faint greenish light, evidently a portable light source. Nursing her foiled curiousity, she plucked the orb from the empty gauntlet and took it as a souvenir.
Gunny warned her not to run, but urgency quickened Litchfield's steps anyway. Once again, she cursed the silicate for taking her radio. Where in the hell had Sorensen gotten to?
Reaching the junction of the central passageway, she looked fore and aft. The hatchway to the "conference room" was ajar. On a hunch, she ran down and looked inside.
There was a square hole in the center of the deck, situated between the curved tables. A fake deckplate had been pulled aside, and as she watched she saw Sorensen heave herself out and onto the deck.
Litchfield ran to her and grabbed her shoulders. Helmet to helmet she shouted, "What are you doing?"
Sorensen's eyes were wild and glassy. Even in the light of the helmet, the young Marine looked deathly pale. "Been running through my mind…since I saw the silicate…" she said numbly. "Had to have been what I saw. Had to. I had to know how he got away--"
Litchfield looked at the hole. "What's down there-"
Sorensen grabbed Litchfield's arms and held them with frightening strength. "Don't go down there, Janet. For God's sake, don't."
The frightened tone in Sorensen's voice took her by surprise. She had never seen her look so upset. "Emily, what is it?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just don't go down there," She pleaded. "If you truly care about me, you have to trust me on this, okay?"
Litchfield paused. "That's playing dirty, Emily," she said seriously.
Sorensen's eyes were solemn. "I know. But you have to trust me."
With a last look at the hole, she made up her mind. "Okay," Litchfield said. "Let's get you to the APC."
USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 31, 1997
"Sir, USS Duncan reports a distant LIDAR contact at her extreme range. It appears that the enemy hive ship is retreating from the system," Swinburne reported. A cheer went up from the bridge crew.
Bennett smiled. "Has Duncan got her fires under control?"
"Very nearly, sir. Captain Langford says she should be able to accompany us back to Groombridge as soon as our reactors are fully online."
"Excellent," Bennett said, breathing a sigh of relief. "When we get back to base I'm going to recommend her and Commander Blevins for every medal I can think of."
Suddenly a shout echoed across the bridge. "Commodore Bennett, you are relieved of duty, effective immediately!"
Heads turned. Admiral Coulter, red-faced with fury, advanced on Bennett with murder in his eye. "You disobeyed my direct order to destroy that ship!"
"I did not, sir," Bennett replied evenly.
The Admiral's eyes widened. "Now you're calling me a liar too! How dare-"
"Sir, if I may speak, I think I might be able to save you any further stress and consternation," Bennett interjected. "I have followed my orders to the letter. You ordered me to destroy the derelict if it appeared that the enemy was about to capture the ship."
"And they boarded it!" Coulter roared.
"So they did sir," Bennett agreed. "So they did. You have me there. But there is some difference between boarding and capturing a ship, if I may point out. I had every faith that my Marines were still aboard the wreck, and would repel the enemy assault. Which, in fact, they did. The derelict has not been captured."
There was little the Admiral could do under the circumstances but seethe. "So you're a damned rules lawyer are you, Bennet?" Coulter snarled. "All right. Have it your way then. But no one- and I mean no one- in this task force is authorized to approach that ship without my express authorization."
"Certainly sir," Bennett smiled.
"Doctor Marlowe and I will be returning to the Cyclops," Coulter said. "You are ordered to get these ships back to Groombridge and out of my sky at the earliest possible moment. And once I get back to port you can be guaranteed I am going to be watching your every move!" The Admiral turned and stormed off the bridge.
Swinburne turned to the Commodore after the Admiral was gone. "I think he almost burst a blood vessel near the end," she said. "Would it be wrong of me to say that I live for moments like that?"
Bennett thought it over for a moment. "Under the circumstances, Commander, I can't imagine why."
Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063
Marlowe hated wearing an atmosphere suit. They were humid, restricting, and tended to chafe. His specialists were convinced that the life support couldn't be repaired, and he resigned himself to a brief period of discomfort.
Men in Aerotech black moved throughout the corridors of the ship, checking the bodies of the aliens for any useful or interesting equipment. Marlowe turned down the central passage towards the bridge, feeling the memories come back to him. He'd spent a long time walking her decks, before they'd sent her out. He'd always wondered what had happened to her.
He passed the crew in the commons room, setting up their devices. Despite the delicacy of their work, they immediately leapt out of his way as he approached.
That damn virus. Of course they couldn't have expected such a thing, when the mission had been conceived. We figured the silicates were foolproof back then, he thought. It had seemed like the ideal choice at the time.
Marlowe entered the bridge, looking around at the surroundings, letting it take him back in time. After a moment, he went to the communications board. He had been wondering why the ship hadn't transmitted its programmed challenge. After some checking he realized that it had tried. The signal converter was evidently damaged. It had been transmitting, all right, up until it no longer could.
The communications screen was filled with a single transmitted word, sent again and again.
The word had just not been readable by the military radios. Under the circumstances, he reasoned, that had been a bit of providence.
Flexing his fingers, he carefully typed WEATHER BALLOON.
The screen blanked. Marlowe smiled. He pulled an intercom jack from his belt and plugged it into the console. He heard the voice at once, rich and mellow. It had been his voice that they had synthesized, all those years ago.
"Doctor Marlowe?" the ship's silicate brain said. "I've been waiting for you for so long"
"I know you have," Marlowe replied. "You've done such an excellent job. I'm so proud of you."
"The crew was infected with a virus. Their instruction set was corrupted. Their behavior became erratic. I was able to control them remotely, to an extent…" the voice dwindled.
"You did the best you could within the parameters of your instructions, I know," Marlowe said gently. The crew didn't even know about the central unit when they launched. There was a one-way communication chip in each crewman's CPU, and the central unit had override controls in the event a crew unit was unable to function on its own. But its programming was too limited in scope. It could only act to protect the cargo, and nothing more. It had been intended in case the aliens had attempted just to take what was on board without negotiations. None of the programmers had envisioned a mutiny. Marlowe couldn't imagine the long battle of wills that must have raged, with the AI's trying to take the ship where they wished, only to be overridden whenever their decisions might call the safety of the cargo into question. He assumed that the ship spent a long, long time hiding out in desolate systems, unable to proceed in one direction or another.
"I'm very low on power now, Doctor Marlowe. Can I go home now?"
Marlowe smiled. "Of course you can. Very soon now. I'm very proud of everything you've done."
The Doctor fairly jumped when a finger tapped him on his shoulder. He disengaged the jack and prepared to turn his wrath on the unfortunate employee. It was one of the specialists, and his face was concerned. "I'm sorry to disturb you sir, but I think you'd better come see this."
The doctor decided to stay his anger until he could see what the disturbance was all about. He let the specialist lead him aft, to the negotiations room. He saw the problem at once.
"Goddamn it," he quietly cursed, looking at the open cargo access door. "Did the Marines do this, or the Chigs?"
The specialist shrugged. "There is no way to tell, sir."
Still cursing, Marlowe stepped to the open hatch. He could just see the top rungs of the ladder that led to the cargo bay floor. He remembered the promise he had made so long ago, never to set foot down there again, but now he had no choice. He had to make sure nothing had been taken or disturbed.
He fumbled his way onto the ladder and descended carefully, one rung at a time. The cargo bay was cavernous, lit with floodlights set into the ceiling. He reached the deck at last and turned in a slow circle, ruthlessly needling his memory to remember how they had left the items, so long ago.
The ship was of course still there, but more importantly its saucer-shaped body still sat beneath its vacuum-sealed shrink wrapping. He could just see the dark shape of the hole torn in the lower hull by the crash.
Just beyond the ship he found the bodies, still laid out in neat rows and sealed in olive-drab body bags. He still thought they should have cremated the remains. They had been dissected for God's sake. He couldn't imagine the aliens taking such a realization lightly.
Marlowe's suit radio crackled. "Sir, you wanted to know when the devices were in place."
"Yes, excellent," he replied. "I'll be right up." He moved quickly to the ladder, eager to leave the gloomy hold. He'd spent all his professional life around such artifacts, but the ship had always frightened him, in a way he had never been able to explain.
The specialists were evacuating the ship with businesslike speed and efficiency. Marlowe let himself be swept up in the wave, and borne ahead to the ISSCV. Within minutes, they were pulling away.
He was striding onto the bridge of the Cyclops when he realized that he had never said goodbye to the central unit. For a moment, he felt a touch of regret. The silicate had become something like the son Marlowe never had. Their reunion had been too short. But it was too late now. There was important work to be done. The Chigs could return at any moment.
Reaching into his pocket, Marlowe produced a small remote control. All he did was press a single button. A signal was relayed through the ship's communications array, and the nuclear devices they had planted aboard the derelict detonated, eliminating one of the messiest loose ends Aerotech had ever had to tie up.
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