Instruction Set

Part Four -- by Michael Lee

see disclaimer in part one

USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 31, 2063
0245 hours

They found forty-three bodies once the fires were out, trapped in compartments cut off by the blaze. The doctors said that they had most likely died of smoke inhalation long before the decks were depressurized, but the fact of the matter was that they would never really know for sure. Commodore Bennett sat heavily in his chair on the bridge and wondered what he was going to write to those sailors' families. He barely noticed his first officer when she approached.

"Commander Blevins reports that repairs are underway on the reactor rooms," Swinburne said, running her hand wearily through her bedraggled hair. "He says there might be a chance of getting number two back online."

Bennett nodded, his thoughts lost in smokestained compartments seven decks below. "That's some good news, Commander. Thank you."

Swinburne turned to leave, but the pain in Bennett's voice made her hesitate. "Sir, you made the right choice. Blevins says that the fire would have reached the fuel lines in another fifteen minutes if we hadn't acted when we did. You saved the ship."

"But forty mothers and fathers will wonder why I didn't save their children, too," Bennett replied wearily. "And I confess that I have no answer for them."

Swinburne, daring greatly, laid a hand on Bennett's arm. "You should get some rest, sir," she urged softly.

"I should," he agreed. "But I won't. Have we heard anything back from Groombridge?"

"No sir," she said with a sigh. "Not a word."

"Then we need to start developing an evacuation plan."

Aboard the derelict
October 31,2063
0300 hours

The oxygen-level indicator on Marshall's wrist began flashing an insistent yellow. The Marines only had thirty minutes of air left. "Walters, could you possibly go any slower?"

"Gunny, if you want to take over, be my guest," Walters replied testily. He cycled back through the screens on the engineering board and started from the beginning. "None of these configurations are standard. At least, they haven't been standard in a long, long time. And it will not let you make a single damn mistake, or you're back to square one."

Marshall grimaced in frustration in went back to pacing the small bridge. "Are you sure the programming code is that old?"

"Have you ever heard of a language called D-CON?"

"Of course," Marshall snorted. "Who hasn't?"

"Just about everybody born after 2047." Walters grumbled. "They stopped using it right before the AI War."

"The AI War," Marshall mused aloud. The blueprints on the table dated from right around the end of that conflict. Was there a connection? Could the silicates have stolen the ship during the war? But if that were the case, why were there Aerotech personnel on the ship as recently as five years ago?

The captain looked around at the various consoles. "Walters, would there be a ship's log here somewhere?"

"The captain would have one in his quarters. Why?"

"I'm curious to know when this ship arrived here."

"Oh. I can tell you that, most likely." Walters scrolled through a number of screens until he arrived at a long list of numbers. "This is a system log showing fuel consumption rates. Each spike shows when the Eckerly drive was activated. The last spike was-" The Marine stiffened.

"What's wrong, Walters?"

The Marine turned to look at the captain. "The last spike was yesterday, at 2200," he said. "The ship got here a few hours ahead of us."

"Major, this is Captain Marshall. I think you'd better come to the bridge."

"I'll be right there, Captain," Wilde answered. She stood outside the hatch to the captain's quarters. She had saved this stateroom for last, though by now she already had a good idea what she would find inside.

She pushed the hatch open with her left hand, holding her weapon ready. The compartment seemed larger than the regular crew's quarters, only because there was one bed instead of two, and no need for a second person's closet or dresser. There was a small work desk and a set of empty bookshelves. The sheets on the bed were in a tangle, and Wilde suddenly noticed that they were covered in blood.

Wilde opened the large closet. There were two changes of uniform inside, black ship's coveralls emblazoned with the Aerotech logo. At the floor of the closet sat a small black duffel. Then she checked the dresser, though she already knew what she would find. Nothing.

It had been the same in the other staterooms. There were clothes for one person per room, but only enough clothes for a couple of days. Nothing else, except maybe some toiletries. They hadn't planned to stay long, she thought.

Suddenly her eyes flooded with brilliance. It took a panicked moment before she realized that the lights had come on. She looked around, letting her eyes adjust. "Now we're getting somewhere," she muttered. She looked down at her "canary", a portable oxygen sensor clipped to her belt.

The lights went out, plunging her back into darkness. This shock was somehow worse, after the brief, reassuring illumination. "Goddamnit," she hissed.

The world blazed white again. Half a heartbeat later, darkness. Then light.

Darkness. Light. Darkness. Faster and faster, until the room was painted in angry, strobing flashes, beating at her eyes. Shadows shifted and writhed. The blood on the sheets moved-

She bolted for the hatch, her throat clenching. Beyond the hatchway was more darkness, inert and cold. Wilde fell to her knees, gasping for air. "Walters, what's up with the lights?" she finally said.

The Marine responded a moment later, sounding distracted. "Sorry ma'am. I'm still working on it. I ought to have something in a few minutes."

Wilde made no move to stand, concentrating on her breathing and putting her panic to rest. She hadn't slept in days. She was exhausted and feeling some confusion from being in the suit. Eye fatigue could cause some crazy things, she had heard.

"I'm on my way," she said into the radio, and headed for the bridge.

Litchfield leaned against the corner and tried to think of something to say while she kept her weapon aimed at the hatch to the "conference room". Sorensen was just a meter away, still as a statue. She hadn't spoken a single word since they got back to their post.

You're too needy, Janet. You want someone else to step in and make all the decisions for you. Life just doesn't work that way.

She could still see Susan say those words, her face in profile as she stared through the restaurant's window at the rainy street. Janet knew that all Susan was thinking about was getting outside for another cigarette, and at that moment she couldn't believe that she had ever loved this woman. Yet she also knew that if Susan changed her mind, right then and there, and held out her hand, she would have taken it in a moment. Anything was better than being alone. And it terrified her to think that the one bold step she had taken into the wild world, her first independant decision, had been a terrible mistake.

Janet had fallen in love with Susan at prep school, because Susan was aggressive and smart, and took an interest in her artwork. It was a steadying hand when Janet felt herself poised over a precipice, unable to go back to the world of business and the Plan. She felt like a fish cast up on the shore, doomed to founder and gasp until she died. She had never even thought about love before she met Susan, and she knew that the shock to her parents could very well be fatal. They were hysterical enough at the thought that all their years of labor had been in vain.

Her parent's didn't come to the graduation ceremony, just put some credit on her card to pay for her way home. Or wherever. Susan was going to New York, to get an apartment and live a bohemian life selling art on streetcorners. She hadn't a clue what living in New York was like, or how hard it was to make a living selling art, but at least it was a plan, a new Plan, one she thought she could be happy with. So she closed her eyes and leapt. It took her four years to hit bottom.

She stole a glance at Sorensen, noticing the tension in her limbs and the ruthless control with which she held herself. She had never seen Emily so upset, not even in Boot. She ought to say something. Patch things over, smooth the rough edges, and try to be friends. She'd thought that maybe there had been something there, but what did she know?

Her radio crackled, and for a split second, she hoped it was Emily. But Walter's voice crackled in her ears. "Okay, people, we're getting air and heat. Check your canaries first, and remember to shut off your breathers. I'll have lights on in another couple of minutes."

For a moment her pain was forgotten as Litchfield checked her sensor and found it pulsing a welcoming green. In moments she had her helmet off. The air was cool, and smelled swampy, but the faintest breeze against her cheeks meant everything.

Sorensen pulled off her helmet, ruffled her short red hair, and resumed her stoic watch.

They had air, but the silence still stretched between them.

"Oh, damn," Fleisher grimaced, wrinkling his nose. He fitted the helmet to his pack and slid the radio headset back over his head. "What did you do, Walters, set the life support for 'high school gym locker'?"

"If you don't like your air, Fleisher, I'll be happy to take it back," Walters growled.

"I'll manage, thanks." the baby-faced Marine rubbed gratefully at his face. "Man, they must've served a lot of cabbage on this ship…"

He wasn't eager to put the goggles back over his eyes, content to stand in darkness for a moment and feel the open space around him. Perry and he were working their way down the starboard accessway, and so far all they had found were a succession of cargo compartments and equipment lockers. The cargo spaces, along the outboard side of the passage, were all empty, cavernous spaces. The equipment lockers inboard were well-stocked with cargo-handling gear.

They were three-quarters of the way down the passage, now, and Perry was inside yet another of the cargo bays, while Fleisher kept watch outside. At the rate they were going, they would be done in just another few-

He heard a sound, down at the forward end of the accessway. A faint, rhythmic sound, growing steadily louder. Suddenly he realized it was footfalls. Someone running hard, directly towards him.

"Sorensen? Litchfield? Is that you?" There was no answer out of the blackness. Just the urgent pounding of feet, growing closer. Now he thought he could hear the whisper of breath, and a thin, whimpering sound.

He grabbed for his goggles, tangling his gloves in his weapon's sling. The footsteps echoed all around him. He heard a voice, a woman's whispered voice, pleading: "Stay away from me oh God please stay away-"

The voice was right in front of him. With a cry he wrenched the goggles up to his eyes, juggling the weapon and its light. The red beam bounced crazily around the passage--but no one was there.

It took a moment to realize that the running feet were gone. Fleisher spun, shining the lamp down the rest of the passageway, only to find it empty.

Suddenly Perry was at the cargo hatch, looking Fleisher over with his goggles. "What's up? I thought I heard you say something."

Fleisher didn't say anything at first, untangling his gear and fitting the goggles firmly in place. "Nothing, man," he said, almost but not quite hiding the tremor in his voice. "It was nothing."

USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 31, 2063
0330 hours

"Bridge, CIC- Eckerly wavefront emissions detected close aboard. Looks like a single ship."

Commodore Bennett and Commander Swinburne shared looks over the paper-covered chart table. Neither one dared to look hopeful in front of the other. "Do we have any IFF transmissions?" Bennett asked.

"Getting something now, sir. Corporate ID- Aerotech tender Cyclops, sir. They are lowering anchor and preparing to move alongside."

Swinburne let out a long, relieved sigh. Bennett wished he could do the same, but ship captains weren't permitted such displays. "It appears we aren't going to need these plans after all, Commander," he said mildly. "Would you do me the favor of filing them away?"

They had been staring disaster in the face. With her two small escorts, Lexington could not have offloaded even a third of her crew. "I think I know just the place to put these, sir," Swinburne said with a weary smile.

Bennett straightened, his hands pressed against the small of his back. "Communications, signal the Cyclops-"

"Sir, we're getting a signal from them," the communications officer said. "Rear Admiral Coulter sends his compliments, and is asking permission to come aboard."

Bennett paused, his bushy eyebrows arching in surprise. "Is he now?" he said, half to himself. "Well, under the circumstances, we can hardly refuse. Communications, inform them that permission is granted, but we haven't much of a red carpet to roll out, under the circumstances."

"Aye, aye, sir. Cyclops is also asking to begin transferring repair parties."

"As swiftly as they can, Mister Fuentes," Bennett acknowledged.

Commander Swinburne gathered up the plans, her expression troubled. "I don't think I've heard of Admiral Coulter setting foot off Groombridge in five years," she said. "What brought him out here on an Aerotech tender?"

"That is something I'd very much like to know," Bennett replied, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "Commander, you have the conn. I'm going to meet the Admiral on the flight deck and hopefully ask some questions."

The vice-chief of Naval operations at Earth's only interstellar military base stepped almost warily onto the flight deck, as if fearful of some sort of ambush. Rear Admiral Coulter was a man of average height and bland, unreadable features. To Bennett, the Admiral's one remarkable trait was that he seemed to disdain the huge retinues of staff officers that most men of his rank seemed to collect. Coulter worked alone, and kept the facts of his business in his head.

"Welcome aboard the Lexington, sir," Bennett said with a sharp salute. "If you're here about our yearly cleanliness inspection, I'm afraid I have some bad news for you."

A faint smile flickered across Coulter's face. "How bad is it, Bill?"

"The reactors are the worst of it, sir. If we can get our coolant systems back online we can make it into port. Commander Blevins did an excellent job with containing the fire. But until we get fusion power back we're essentially helpless."

Coulter nodded, clasping his hands behind his back as he surveyed the activity around the flight deck. "Things are going badly all over. If Aerotech hadn't offered us the use of one of their tenders, I don't know what we would have done."

"We're always happy to do our part for the war effort, Admiral," came a dry voice from the hatch of the ISSCV.

Bennett hadn't noticed the man in the black suit until he spoke. The Aerotech man was short and slightly built, with a receding hairline and soft, placid features. His eyes were dark, sharp with intelligence and a faint suggestion of impatience. The Commodore smiled his most diplomatic smile. "It appears we are indebted to you, Mister-"

"Doctor Marlowe," the man corrected. "Have no fear, Commodore. I've got men on board the Cyclops who know this ship better than you do. We can have her engines running again in no time."

"What a fortunate coincidence," Bennett replied evenly.

"Your report indicated that you've found a ship out here," Admiral Coulter interjected. "Is that right?"

"Yes, sir. A Galileo-class, by all appearances. I thought they'd all gone to the scrapyard years ago. How this one got here I haven't a clue."

"We're a little curious as well. Have you had any more luck identifying the ship?"

Bennett shook his head. "It hasn't been one of our primary concerns, as I am sure you will understand. We do have a squadron of Space Cavalry on board the ship now, attempting to gather more information."

"Are you sure that's safe, Commodore?" Doctor Marlowe said, a little sharply.

The Commodore turned to the Aerotech man. "Can it be any more dangerous than what we face every day against the enemy, doctor? Up until very recently, they were in much less danger than the rest of my crew."

"Pull your people out of there, Commodore," Admiral Coulter said peremptorily. You've got them out on a limb. If something should happen, you would have no way to support them. Get them back aboard, and we'll deal with the derelict once we've got the Lexington back on her feet." The Admiral spoke with conviction, but Bennett caught the brief glance Coulter exchanged with the man from Aerotech.

William Bennett had been raised in a family of diplomats, where poise and quick thinking were the order of the day. "Certainly, sir," he said without pause. "I'll see to it immediately. With your permission sir, allow me to conduct you to the bridge, and we can get to work."

"I can find my way there myself, Bill," Coulter said, glancing once again at Doctor Marlowe. "You go on ahead and issue your orders. We'll be along presently."

"Very well, sir." Bennett replied. "Under the circumstances, there was little else he could do. "If you will excuse me." Nodding politely to the doctor, the Commodore strode briskly off the hangar deck. As he stepped through the hatch, he stole a glance back at Coulter and Doctor Marlowe, and saw them locked in heated conversation. It was easy to see which of the two men was in charge.

The observation didn't reassure Bennett one bit.

Aboard the derelict
October 31, 2063

"Are you telling me this ship made transit yesterday?" Major Wilde said, thunderstruck. "That's impossible."

Walters shrugged. "That's what the fuel consumption records say, ma'am."

"Then how did it get here? Someone had to be aboard to enter the coordinates and monitor the engines. But judging by the way the air smells, I don't think the life support has been run in years!"

Marshall shifted uncomfortably. "A silicate wouldn't need air or heat, ma'am. I've had my suspicions since we came aboard, and now I believe there are AI's somewhere on this ship."

Wilde folded her arms. "AI's on the ship- doing what, Gunny?"

The captain looked at her quizzically. "I don't understand what you mean."

"If there are AI's here, what are they using the ship for?" Wilde walked over to the chart table and the stack of blueprints. "Let's stick to what we know for just a second. In 2057 there was an Aerotech crew here. There are clothes in the staterooms for twelve people, just a skeleton crew, and changes of uniform for only a couple of days." The major dug into one of her suit's cargo pockets and pulled out a foil package. "This is what I found in the galley."

Marshall picked it up. "Field rations."

"Enough to feed twelve people for about two days. No more." She picked up one of the blueprint sheets. "You said earlier that you didn't think the Aerotech people were familiar with the ship. I agree. I think they were some kind of short-term transfer crew, moving it from one place to another."

"But we know at least one of them was armed," Walters said. "Which is strange for a ferry mission."

"They weren't sure what they would find when they came aboard," Marshall concluded. "They found the ship somewhere. It was already a derelict."

"Exactly. And in the process of moving the ship, something happened."

The older captain shrugged. "There were silicates hiding onboard. They stole the ship during the war, then maybe used a distress beacon to lure the Aerotech people on board. I've heard of it happening dozens of times."

Wilde shook her head. "No, that doesn't make sense either. Silicates take chances, but they don't act randomly or purposelessly. Why go to all the trouble to lure a dozen Aerotech men here? Normally the idea is to sucker in another ship and capture it. That didn't happen in this case, because for your theory to work, the AI's would have had to kill the skeleton crew- and then stay here. What's the point? Not only that, but then aside from removing the bodies, nothing else has been touched. There's blood in the airlock passage, meals in the commons room, even blood on the bed in the captain's quarters. This ship hasn't seen any regular activity since 2057. I'd be willing to stake my life on it."

"But someone killed the ferry crew," Marshall said pointedly. "And someone brought this ship here at 2200 hours yesterday."

"Granted." Wilde folded her arms. "But there's another mystery. Why bring the ship here, on the last of its fuel? The only useful thing about COAL SACK is that it is about as far as you can get off the beaten path and still be in human space. There is nothing here to refuel with. To come here you'd have to be-"

"Desperate. Or on the run. Or both," Walters said.

"Desperate enough to drift in this system forever, rather than be found." Wilde said. "What could drive someone to that?"

"Tango Alpha Niner, this is USS Lexington on secure laser, do you copy?"

Dieters eyes snapped open. Like all soldiers everywhere, sleep was worth more than gold, and he took it whenever it was safe to do so. He straightened in the pilot's chair, feeling the kinks in his back and legs. "Lexington, this is Tango Alpha Niner, go ahead."

"Tango Alpha Niner, recover troops and return to base ASAP."

They must've fixed the ship, Dieters thought. Hoo-Ya! "Roger that, Lexington, returning to base. Tango Alpha Niner, out." As far as he was concerned, they had already been out here two hours too long. The derelict gave him the creeps.

He reached up and changed channels to the unit radio frequency. As he did, a beeping arose from one of the consoles behind him. Why does everything always happen at once?

"WINTER, this is SHOOTER, do you copy?"

While he waited for the major to reply, the InVitro checked on the beeping noise. ACTIVE SEARCH was flashing on the ISSAPC's threat board. It meant that someone was sweeping the area around the APC with active LIDAR. The Lady Lex must have switched back on her sensor array, he thought.

"SHOOTER, this is WINTER," Major Wilde replied. "What have you got?"

"Got a call from home, boss," Dieters replied. "They want us to-"

Suddenly the beeping changed to a shrill screech. As he watched, the ACTIVE SEARCH telltale changed to WEAPONS LOCK.

"What the hell-" Dieters cried.

Then he saw the Chigs.

The three alien fighters took shape out of the darkness like evil spirits, their black hulls lit with sullen, violet light. They swept across the bow of the derelict and in a graceful, rolling curve towards the ISSAPC. Bursts of plasma flashed at the small troopship, passing within meters of its hull. The swiftly-moving fighters flashed past the APC and split up, each ship rolling in different directions as they prepared to swing around for another pass.

The Chig ships swooped back and closed to point-blank range, approaching the APC from three different directions. The ships fired at the same moment, sending bolts of fire into the troopship's cockpit, squad bay, and engine section. The APC exploded in a fiery ball, sending debris spinning into the side of the derelict.

One moment the starboard bridge viewports were filled with angry orange light, and the next it felt as though giant hammers were pounding against the hull. Sparks flew from a number of consoles, and Wilde was thrown back against the chart table, scattering papers across the deck.

A Chig fighter flashed past the viewports, spinning slowly on its axis as it disappeared from sight.

The Marines leapt for the windows, trying to follow where the fighters had gone. "Can anybody see the APC?" Wilde said urgently.

"Negative, it's too far aft-" Marshall said.

"SHOOTER, this is WINTER," Wilde cried. "Dieters, answer me!"

There was no reply.

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