“No, I think I’m okay.”
“Wrong answer.” He yelled back, making his way through the equipment. The ceiling collapse had done a moderate amount of damage to the laboratory, but not enough to block his progress. When he stepped inside, he was surprised to see how little this room was affected. It didn’t take him long to find Finch busily studying the pods and breaking a laundry list of procedures in the process. She’s young and enthusiastic, he thought as he reached into a belt pouch and tossed her a pair of latex gloves.
“Listen, if you insist on recklessly touching things before making sure they are safe, at least take some precautions.” He said, tapping a small pin on his left shirt pocket that was blinking in a steady blue and white rhythm. “There’s still a lot going on down here that we don’t know about and I don’t like how our biohazard sensors are going off.”
She looked down at her shirt before nodding. “Sorry, this is just so fascinating that I wasn’t thinking. Why would they put themselves in a stasis pod?”
He bent down and examined the equipment connected to the pods. “It looks like they intended to hold up in this room until help arrived. The question becomes why.”
“I don’t think we’re going to get anything out of them in their present state.”
He straightened and brushed some dust from his trouser legs. “Agreed. The next question becomes how to wake them up without killing them. Whoever put this configuration together knew what they were doing.”
“Well, with the way back up out of commission, we have plenty of time to figure out our options.”
On the surface, a lone flyer, buffeted by the fierce sandstorm, held its position over the facility grounds while depositing a trapezoidal box on the ground. The box unfolded a set of legs and skittered around the main building before coming to rest at the communications array. The legs buried themselves in the sand while connectors extended from the device’s body and made contact with the array’s antenna and power supply while a small antenna with a flashing blue tip rose from its top.
“I miss my old job,” Matson remarked as he connected a y-shaped cable between the two pods and a portable terminal that they had wheeled in from the lab. “Chasing bad guys was infinitely preferable to stalking places like this, never knowing if something creepy was going to jump out of the shadows any minute.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Finch replied, smiling as she booted up the terminal. “After all, you have an advantage over the rest of the Galaxy.”
He made a show of throwing his hands up in mock celebration. “Watch out, Milky Way.”
“Just when I think I’m starting to know you, you change gears on me.” The small grin dawning on her face betrayed the sharpness of her criticism. She set the data tablet aside as the terminal’s screen lit up with a full colored status display. “Okay, the data connection to the pod systems is online and transmitting telemetry. Man, this is some complicated stuff.”
Matson took a moment to admire his handiwork. “The trick will be to vent the bio-suspension mist without shorting out the entire life support system in the process.”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Whoever set this up used a containment protocol that hasn’t been in use for at least twenty years. The reason that mist suspension systems were phased out was due to their unstable reactive properties when exposed to electricity.” He waved a hand. “They went out of their way to isolate themselves from the rest of the outpost systems.” He noticed her jaw drop. “What?”
“Nothing, I’m surprised that you have such a grasp of high-tier electronic systems.”
He smirked. “Yeah, I’m full of surprises.” He steadied himself against the conference table as a tremor shock wave shook the walls around them. “Have you figured out the revival protocol yet?”
“I’ve almost got it.” Finch frowned as she worked through a series of combinations. “The layers of encryption they used here are astounding and I mean, astounding in a pain in the butt kind of way. Decrypting the station logs was easier by far.”
“I’d say to work faster, but there’s not much point to it.” Matson sat down at the conference table and put his boots up. “Well, at least until the walls start tumbling down around us.”
“Your optimism is reassuring.”
He leaned back in the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “I prefer to do my ranting and raving from within the confines of my own head. Outside of that, I’m all about calm and collected.” He pulled out a small cloth sleep mask from a belt pouch and put it on. “Wake me when you make some progress.”
“You’re taking a nap at a time like this?”
Tilting up the mask from his eyes, he shrugged. “We need to conserve our strength since we’re cut off from all our supplies and trying to climb up an unstable elevator shaft isn’t wise.” He stole a glance at the doorway. “On the other hand, there is that door I found in the stasis pod room. Obviously, it leads somewhere, but I’m not inclined to try opening it without more information.”
“So, you get to sleep and I get to work? Is that what I’m sensing here?”
He replaced the mask over his eyes. “I’m liking you already.”
Finch growled to herself as she turned back to her work. “Just wonderful.”
Time passed before he was jolted awake by another tremor that shook loose the overhead acoustic tiles and sent them down to the floor in a dusty rain of broken composites. He coughed as he brushed the dust away. A quick check on his watch showed that only an hour had passed since he first closed his eyes. Angered, he stood. Finch was still hard at work at the terminal, caked in tile dust mixed with sweat. Watching her determination at solving the problem softened his attitude. She’s a good kid, he thought as he watched her work. She doesn’t deserve to be in a mess like this so I need to make sure that she comes out of it in one piece. Of course, she’ll never know how much I value her abilities and that bottomless reservoir of cheerful optimism she carries around.
“If you’re going to stand there behind me, you may as well do something useful.” She said, her eyes not leaving the screen. “Tell me more about that door you found in the stasis pod room.”
“Not much to tell.” He replied. “Someone cut and mounted an airlock door into the outer wall. As far as I know, there’s nothing beyond it but bedrock and dirt.”
“So, it could be a way out?”
He nodded. “It’s a possibility, but then again it could lead nowhere.” Another tremor rattled their surroundings. “On the other hand, if these tremors keep up, eventually the power’s going to fail and take the life support system down with it.” He paused to listen to the walls creak as the stress to their structural joints mounted. “This may be a converted space station hull, but even nano-welded steel has to give way to the physics of metal fatigue.”
“Well, we can’t just leave these two in stasis while the station collapses down around them,” Finch said. “It’s just not right.”
Try as he might, Matson couldn’t find a flaw in her argument.
“All right then, we need to figure out how to revive them and then find a way out of here.” He studied the stasis pods. “Whoever designed these things never made the Off Switch easy to find.”
Finch looked up. “What did you say?”
“I was making a facetious comment about the lack of an easy to find Off Switch.” Matson circled to the pods’ rear sections. “It would be ridiculous to not include a manual override in the design configuration.”
Finch slapped the side of the terminal. “Of course,” She exclaimed. “That’s why I’ve been chasing my tail trying to figure out the software module. It doesn’t do anything other than provide an exercise in futility. It doesn’t actually do anything. This entire facility seems to be configured to misdirect and confuse anyone who isn’t part of the staff.”
“That’s about par for the course for Alliance Intelligence,” Matson said. “They never tell the whole story. A piece here, a dollop there, but never more than enough to piss you off or make you go elsewhere. Plans within plans.”
“I, for one, am tired of playing this particular game.” She joined him. “Any ideas where the real control modules might be?”
Matson shook his head as he crouched to study the cable connections. The plug fittings were standard issue, but as he traced a finger under the smooth base, he felt a thick coat of enamel paint that felt out of place. Why paint over a perfectly good cover material? He moved his finger along until it stopped at a small depression marking a perpendicular seam. He reached for his belt pouches, but the knife he was expecting was missing. Damn it, he thought, I must have dropped it during one of our elevator shaft climbs. “Finch, do you have your knife handy?”
She handed him a small flattened black rod. The rod was covered in a spongy material that molded itself to his grip and when he pressed a single button on its midsection, a double-edged silver blade popped out. He scratched away the paint around the depression until he had cleared enough to insert the tip. A quick twist and a cover section pulled free from the housing, revealing a small control panel hidden inside. He set the piece aside and motioned to Finch to repeat his action.
“This isn’t what I expected,” He said as he examined the controls. “Simple toggle switches with status lights and a few digital meters. Blatantly low tech considering what they were working with.” He flipped a switch, watching for a response. When none came, he let out a small sigh. “More window dressing.”
Finch opened the other pod’s control panel. “Zack, I found a small wireless controller in this one. I think whoever set this up intended for the pods to talk to each other, but I can’t see the purpose behind it.”
Matson smirked. “More tricks. What were they guarding against?”
Finch shrugged as she continued her examination. “I couldn’t tell you the answer to that. All I can say is that they created a closed loop system independent of the outpost systems.” She flipped a switch and received the same result for her trouble. “Well, that went nowhere. Any change over there?”
He studied the control panel and noticed a slight flickering across the column of lights. He flipped the first switch again with no effect. “A slight flicker, but nothing significant. There has to be a pattern to this.” He stood and walked around the pods, taking note of the portable power generator. “Unless we’re supposed to simply pull the plug.”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” She replied. “Based on my readings, if the pods aren’t properly shut down, the power stored in their capacitors may spontaneously discharge and if that happens, I wouldn’t make any future plans.”
“Someone disabled the safety interrupts?”
Finch checked her readings again. “More like removed them completely. Why would someone do that?”
Matson started pacing in a figure eight between the two pods, his mind ticking over and over as he studied the equipment. Someone went to a lot of effort to not only isolate them from the rest of the outpost systems but also to make them nigh on impervious to tampering. But why? The corners of his mouth turned upward as he noticed Finch watching him from the corner of his right eye. He pushed the visual cues back down as another tremor shook the walls. He inspected the two control panels and the cable connections to the power generator. Nothing seemed amiss and although unusual, very logical in the placements. When he got to the wireless controller on the second pod, he stopped. The gray device was larger than he expected, filling up an eight inch by eight inch square section near the top rear of the pod and attached in place by magnetic clamps.
“I’ve already gone over that piece of equipment,” Finch remarked. “There’s nothing unusual about it.”
“Except the size.”
She shrugged. “It’s probably an older model they scavenged to put this system together.”
“Scavenged? Here? I highly doubt that.” He leaned in to peer at the controller’s casing. “No, there’s something else going on with this thing.” A set of scratches near the underside caught his eye. “Did you happen to notice these scratches?”
Finch turned her gaze back down at her screens. “I noted them, but I thought they were the by-product of a hasty installation. Why do you ask?”
“A good investigator considers everything as a clue until it has been ruled out.” Matson explained as he continued to study the scratch pattern. A chill shivered through him before he jumped away from the pods and began another search for hidden projectors. It was redundant, to be sure, but better safe than sorry.
“You’re turning paranoid.”
“I’m being careful.” He waved away a wisp of dust that shook loose from the ceiling and danced around his head. As he suspected, no hidden projectors, but the scratches had to come from somewhere. Perhaps something prior to the accident that befell the outpost. Perhaps in the next room. The pile of unanswered questions grew steadily by the hour and his patience dwindled in direct proportion. “You should learn to use your senses more and rely on technology less.”
“Spoken like a true Retro Man.”
“My upbringing is as it was,” He replied, tracing a finger over the scratches as he leaned in to examine them in more detail. The magnetic clamps caught his eye and his attention turned to their mounts. “This is strange. The magnetic clamps are screwed in place.”
Finch took a nearby magnifier and joined him. “Definitely a strange way to keep them from going anywhere.” She paused, her ear hovering over the controller. “No hum.”
“Trionic circuitry crystals resonate at a frequency higher than we can detect,” Matson said. “Only the Parans can natively perceive it.”
“It took interacting with humans to get them to travel outside of Pi1 Pegasi.” She replied. She paused, looking down at her data tablet as each active monitor blanked out in rapid succession to be replaced by a standard login screen bearing a spinning corporate logo. “The data links just went down.”
“Can you get back in?”
She typed on the keyboard for several minutes. “I’m trying, but the system’s not letting me back in. Try your access.” She moved aside to let him at the terminal.
Matson bent over the keyboard and typed in his codes. The screen acknowledged his inputs before abruptly flashing an access denied message in large red letters. He let out a grunt before placing his hands behind his back. “I had a feeling that this was going to happen.”
“You think Stein is behind this?”
“I’m practically sure of it. He probably set our access codes to time out. The bastard knew that we were going to be accessing sensitive data, but to be fair, he probably didn’t predict our current circumstances.” He looked over at the pods. “Getting those open just got a little more complicated.”
A glowing blue orb floated through the doorway. It paused in midair as if studying them before moving over and around the two pods. A couple of orbits later, it stopped in the center of the room.
Finch looked at Matson. “It couldn’t be.”