The Darkest Night

See disclaimer in Part One

Part Six -- by Becky Ratliff

In her quarters that night, Vansen found herself putting off going to bed, because she was afraid of another nightmare -- this time with no one around to pull her out of it, back to reality. On board the Saratoga, she'd have been bunked in with the rest of the squadron. She made herself go to bed. And surprised herself by sleeping straight through until her alarm woke her.

She had an early appointment, and McQueen didn't particularly want to put off getting those staples out any longer than he had to. Neither of them felt like breakfast. They walked together as far as the treatment rooms. Vansen asked McQueen, "Are you okay?"

He said he was, and whether that was truth or sheer pride she didn't know. There was nothing she could do but take his word for it. Vansen's work didn't amount to much, after all the build up. The doctor took off the last of her gelskins -- finally -- and then made a few cosmetic implants under a local anesthetic. It seemed more like a trip to the salon than a medical procedure, especially as she examined the results in a hand mirror. No matter how critically she looked and turned her head to make the light hit her face from all different angles, she couldn't find a single trace of what had been a terrible wound.

She was anxious to get out of there and check on McQueen. He was just pulling his shirt back on, she managed in the middle of a crowded treatment area full of at least twenty medics and other patients to give him a look that was just between the two of them. He grinned at her and they got the hell out of there. Both of them were released, Vansen was surprised at that because she had expected the doctor to want to see her again the next day. But she sure wasn't arguing.

They went back to their quarters, McQueen had a message from Avery to meet them on the flight deck. They got their things together and returned their keycards, McQueen sent Avery a message to meet them aboard the launch.

Getting her spaceworthy wasn't much of a job for the two of them, although a pilot never had to do it they were perfectly capable of preflighting the vastly more complicated systems of a Hammerhead in their sleep.

Avery had a computer and a small case full of tools and peripherals with him when he got off the shuttle. He was a superior officer; Vansen offered to take his gear. He refused politely, like most hackers he tended to travel light on personal items and heavy on computer gear. And he hand carried that.

He gave the launch the admiration she was due, but while he was talking he was getting a handheld gadget out of his bag. While McQueenshowed him around the launch, he gave it a thorough search for bugs and found none.

"I got what you wanted, Ty. Get us the hell off this boat and fire up all the ECM you've got, I'll explain what I found once we're underway. I cut you a priority launch code."

McQueen and Vansen looked at each other, and didn't argue with the mix of urgency and apprehension in Avery's voice. The three of them strapped in and McQueen used his rank and Avery's code to get launch clearance. They still had to thread their way through the traffic.

Avery explained their abrupt departure. "I got into Aerotech archives aboard a couple of their smaller ships that didn't sail with the Morgan. You were right the first guess about that code. It's the mother access to the mainframe aboard the Sylurra science station."

"No wonder they wanted it so badly, with that they could get into production--"

"Ty, there's more to it than that! The first AI's weren't housed in androids. They inhabited the cyberspace created by the mainframes -- really big iron is like its own little universe. If you haven't seen it I just can't explain it to you. And the granddaddy of all AI's is the god in the machine on the Sylurra station. He's out there, Ty, and he damn near killed me last night when I went after this code."

"What happened with the Sylurra station?"

"After you led that big bustout and made it known what the AI's were doing on Sylurra, the joint chiefs ordered it destroyed. Publicly, Aerotech concurred. But privately, the director of the project decided the company had made too big an investment in Sylurra to blow it up. I've seen proof of that, but I couldn't copy the files. I don't know whether he acted alone or with the approval of the home office. What happened was, they took a half-completed station and replaced Sylurra with it. They weren't completely dumb. They shut down the mainframe and tried to purge this AI -- he calls himself the Golem -- from the system. But he copied key parts of his programming to subsidiary systems and wrote viruses to reinfect the mainframe as soon as they rebooted. He's stayed transparent all these years, Aerotech didn't know he was still active. But the Golem's been the brains behind a lot of AI activity over the years. He's still bound by a lot of the safety restrictions his programmers imposed on him before they brought him on line, though. He can't replicate himself out of the Sylurra mainframe -- can't write to any other memory units besides the ones on Sylurra. He can't even suggest his ideas to the other AI's. But he can write files they can access if they ask him, and they've learned to do that. Right now, he's like the genie in the bottle, very powerful but he can't do anything with that power until the other AI's make a wish. He can defend himself if he's directly threatened -- which was what I did before I realized I'd netted into the Sylurra home node trying to locate where that code belonged. I just did get out of there, I've fought AI's in virtual reality before but the Golem is more powerful than any of them by a factor of ten. But, Ty, if he ever gets this mother code, he'll be able to remove the safety restrictions. Then he'll be able to infect every computer he can reach on the net -- everything from that little pocket job you have to government mainframes and shipboard brains. He could cripple our society, turn us right over to the AI's -- and the chigs.

The only copy of the other half of that code is right here in my box. After I managed to give the Golem the slip, I nuked the original file. With this code, I can command the Golem to self-destruct. It's the only way to destroy him."

Vansen asked, "Why didn't you use it to kill him last night?"

"It isn't that easy. There's another level of security involved with this particular code. It has to be entered directly into the mainframe from one of its terminals, it won't be accepted over the net. That was originally intended to keep Aerotech's competitors from stealing their work. But what it means now is that we have to get aboard the Sylurra station and get to a terminal before I can shut that son of a bitch down."

McQueen said, "I hope you know where Aerotech took the station, otherwise we all just went AWOL for nothing."

"They took it to Groombridge," Avery replied.

"That figures," McQueen replied.

"Why?" Vansen asked.

McQueen laid in coordinates for the wormhole. "One of Aerotech's biggest mining and manufacturing complexes is located in the Groombridge system. They have a whole string of stations there. The Sylurra station is probably one of them, with a new name and paint job, right, Jim?"

"Right. It's officially known as Research Groombridge Nine now. I couldn't find any indication that anyone except the people involved with the Sylurra project knows about the station's history, they think it's just a science outpost with a small permanent staff doing routine observational studies of the Groombridge system. People have been flying past it for fifteen years without paying any attention to it."

"It's in the Groombridge system? How did you net there, I didn't think you could net through wormholes!" Vansen exclaimed.

"Very new and very classified tech, Captain, I can't answer questions about it."

She shrugged. "I probably wouldn't understand the answer anyway."

Avery asked, "How long will it take us to get there?"

"Sixteen days, running flat out," McQueen replied. "That's assuming I >don't push her to some kind of system failure, and considering this is a new craft, that's probably a big assumption."

"Sixteen -- she is fast!"

Vansen said, "Air and water won't be a problem due to recycling, but even with strict rationing we've only got enough food for the three of us for about four days. And what we'll use for weapons when we get there--!"

McQueen said, "There's a supply depot just this side of the wormhole, we can gear up there."

"We _are_ AWOL, Colonel, by the time we get there, there'll be alerts out on us and this launch all over known space. If we try to dock at the supply depot, we'll just get ourselves arrested!"

McQueen grinned. "Leave that to Jim here. Still remember your old tricks from back when you were our unit scrounger?"

Avery grinned right back. "I'm disappointed in you, Ty, I've learned a whole bunch of new tricks since then."

"You're going to get your chance to prove it."


It was Vansen's turn at the helm when they came into the area of space commanded by Research Groombridge Nine. The stop at the supply depot had been completely without incident, they had taken on supplies and obtained gear and weapons there. The trip through the wormhole, the Sol system and the other wormhole to Groombridge had gone quietly also, thanks to the launch's ECM and the vastness of space they had avoided contact with other ships. They were being especially careful now, skimming along the edge of the asteroid belt. Because of that they had the LIDAR off, of course, so Vansen was paying extra close attention to the passive sensors.

The Sylurra station showed up on long-range visuals. Large as it was the Morgan, lying along side, still dwarfed it. "Colonel, we have problems. The Morgan's here."

He and Avery came up front. "I was afraid of that. Any chance they've spotted us?"

"No, I don't have any indication that they have," she replied.

McQueen lowered himself into the other pilot's station and checked all the sensors. "I don't like this, Vansen, there's no skipchatter on the radio. The closest transmissions I'm picking up are coming from the mining colony."

"The Morgan should have her patrols out! What are they thinking?"

"It doesn't add up."

They watched the screens with growing apprehension until they finally got a visual, it confirmed their worst fears.

The Morgan hung derelict in space, a long trail of debris had been strewn out into her orbit behind her like the tail of some macabre comet from a huge gaping hole amidships. Here and there, areas of the ship were still pressurized, and fires still raged.

McQueen asked, "Is there any indication of survivors?"

Vansen shook her head. "Negative, the explosion breached the core. There are lethal radiation levels throughout the whole ship. Even with protective gear no one could survive those levels of radiation longer than five or ten minutes."

"Explosion is right," McQueen said. "That wasn't a hit from outside, it was a massive explosion on her flight deck."

Vansen said, "But even if a fully armed fighter exploded on the flight deck, it couldn't do that kind of damage to a ship that size!"

"It had to be a bomb, Shane. Even something as crude as a fertilizer bomb could have done it, if someone had known where to place it for the maximum damage."

As they watched in horror, another huge explosion ripped through the heart of the once proud JP Morgan, as the uncontrolled flames finally >reached her main magazines. Only a section of the stern remained intact, the >rest was reduced to a cloud of deadly radioactive scrap metal. Avery said, "Oh, my God... Ty, there were thousands of people on board that ship. There were children aboard!"

They stared at the wreckage for a long moment. Then McQueen said, "We've got a job to do here. We can't help the people who went down with the Morgan, Jim, all we can do is make their deaths count for something. Shane, what's the status of the research station?"

"It appears to be normal, but I'm not picking up anything on the radio. The AI's must have already taken it over. We need to figure a way to get aboard without them noticing, ECM won't help once we get within visual range."

McQueen said, "We'll have to use the wreckage of the Morgan as cover. Their eyes don't work the same way ours do, the radiation in there will make us look like just another chunk of wreckage. We can coast over to the station's hull and dock to a maintenance bay. They won't know we're coming through until we're already inside. It's going to be fun then."

"Isn't it though," Shane replied. She already had the computer plotting their course, well away from the deadly ball of molten metal that had been the Morgan's reactor core. Nothing else was reading high enough radiation levels to harm them through the launch's hull.

That was the easy part. She and McQueen knew full well what they were getting into, they didn't have a lot of chance of getting back out of there. She wondered if Avery knew that. He certainly knew what the consequences of failure would be. "I have the course laid in."

"No sense giving them any more time to make themselves at home than we have to. Let's do it."

Vansen fired the main thruster briefly, starting them off, then cut everything nonessential to life support except the small maneuvering thrusters she would need to make minor course corrections inside the debris field. It had been one thing to see the final destruction of the Morgan on long-range video. It was another to fly through her ashes. They dodged chunks of debris twice their size, Vansen had allowed for much nearer misses than she was comfortable with because she didn't want to take a chance on the AI's noticing that a piece of the wreckage was navigating under its own power! McQueen's hand rested lightly on the trigger for the forward cannon, if they were in immediate danger he could blow away anything that was about to hit them. Secondary explosions in the debris field would be the rule rather than the exception for a little while. But he obviously didn't expect to have to do that, he trusted her driving further than she did. Avery seemed cool and collected on the surface, but he had braced himself between their seats in order to see outside, and his knuckles were white.

Vansen glanced outside. She'd seen enough small-craft explosions to know what pilot remains looked like. Avery didn't, and she didn't want him to figure it out right now. "You'd better strap in, sir, I'm only going to have one shot at the docking ring and there might be a jolt."

McQueen knew better, he gave her a look as Avery went back to his seat. Vansen answered by directing her glance at something that looked -- on first glance -- like another anonymous bit of flotsam. He nodded.

Vansen found herself keeping an eye on the radiation monitors, she had chosen a course that avoided the worst of it but it was still hot out there. The hull shielding, as she had planned, would be more than effective to keep them safe. It still made her nervous.

That was nothing compared to the set of nerves she got when they started across the open space from the wreck of the Morgan to the station. Even if their plan worked perfectly, if some AI in the control room happened to notice a "piece of junk" from the wreck headed toward the station, it might blow them away just for the hell of it. With propulsion down, she knew they wouldn't have a prayer of evasive action. For fifteen mikes she sat there with an appropriately "right stuff" nonchalant look on her face, when what she really wanted to do was chew her nails. But Wild Cards luck held and they settled lightly onto the docking ring, her calculations had been close enough that the docking ring's automatic magnetic grapples pulled them right into place.

End Part Six

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