Note: The story is getting to within a few thousand words of the 40,000-word mark, or as I like to put it, The Point of No Return where it becomes a novel and would be a crime not to finish it. Anyway, enjoy. 🙂
“It’s not,” Matson walked around the terminal and faced the orb. “What we encountered was a different sort of entity. This object looks like a plasmonic communication device, probably being operated from the surface and using the station’s communication array to carry the signal. But who sent it?”
“My vote is on Stein.”
“Mine too,” He held up a finger to silence her and then mouthed the words ‘Play along with me’. After she nodded her agreement, he cleared his throat. “Okay, whoever you are, do you have two way communication capability?”
The orb fluctuated, bending and twisting until it formed a transparent man shape. “Your powers of deduction are impeccable, Agents.”
“Cut the crap, Stein. We’re stuck down here and we’re locked out of the outpost computers.”
The image firmed up. Stein looked around and nodded. “Yes, it would appear that you’re in quite a dilemma,” His image flickered before stabilizing. “It will take time to reestablish your access, but I must request that you leave the pods alone. A rescue team is preparing to come and get you out as well as recover the pods.”
“There’s a Category Theta Sandstorm topside,” Matson stated. “We both know that it will take days for the storm to pass and the outpost structure is already compromised by seismic tremors. We’re also cut off from our survival gear and I believe that those two in the pods are our best chance in finding a way out of here,” he shot Finch a glance as she opened her mouth. “How do we get them out?”
Stein crossed his arms.
“Be glad that you aren’t physically here,” Matson went out to the laboratory for several minutes, returning with a large bladed ax. “I’m going to get those people out, one way or another.”
“Those pods were designed for deep space containment,” Stein said. “Hitting them with a ax will barely scratch the paint.”
Matson raised the ax. “Who said I was going to hit them with it?” He stalked over to the closest pod and jammed the blade where the magnetic clamps met the pod’s skin. He brought his weight down on the handle until, with stereo pops, the screws securing the clamps broke free and the controller housing fell to the floor. He forced back the remaining edges and found a small lighted control panel inside. “Well well, look what I’ve found.”
“Agent Matson, I insist that you stop what you are doing immediately.”
Matson reached inside the gap and pressed two small white buttons on the control panel. In response, lights appeared along each pod’s door and mist vented from concealed vents, lending a hiss to the air. He stepped back and watched as Stein’s frown changed to a scowl.
“Stein, those people are coming out and they will answer every question that we put to them,” he turned to face the hologram. “I suppose if you don’t like it, you can always come down here and stop us.” He paused, his eyes boring into Stein’s electronic counterparts. “Or me.”
Stein turned and brought a fist down on the conference table, frustrated as it passed through the wood and metal surface. “I may not be able to physically stop you but rest assured that my authority in this matter will be respected and your actions will have consequences.”
“Yes, yes, whatever,” red lights appeared at the top of each pod. “Finch, what’s happening?”
“I was afraid of this,” Finch said, her fingers dancing over her data tablet. “I’m registering a power surge coming from the pod communication system. Someone is trying to short circuit the life support systems before the revival program can complete. Their vital signs are fluctuating.”
Matson whirled on Stein. “I knew there was a reason I didn’t trust you at our first meeting.” He dropped the ax and went over to the terminal and began typing.
“I told you that it would take time to reestablish your accesses.”
“Blow it out your ass,” Matson gave a few quick taps on the terminal keyboard and pressed enter. The overhead lighting brightened and status boxes popped up on the monitor.
“Activating Protocol 49 now.” He entered more commands into the keyboard. Stein’s image winked out of existence with an angry pop and the pod lighting faded to a somber amber. Both doors hissed open and the occupants slumped to the floor.
Finch didn’t bother to hide her grin as she grabbed the nearest first aid kit and tended to the injured. “I had forgotten about your duplicate access account. But how did you manage to hide it from Stein? That would have been the first thing that I would have looked for when tapping into the network.”
He busied himself by removing the cushions from a pair of conference chairs and arranging them on the floor as a makeshift bed. “I nested my account under the Chief Engineer’s and set it to overload the reactors if someone attempted to delete it without the proper codes,” he tapped his forehead. “The codes only I know.”
“Clever,” she replied, using the first aid kit’s scanner to assess for injuries. “How did you get rid of Stein?”
“He probably redirected the energy pulse back to the Comms Array,” the woman sputtered and coughed her suggestion until her airways were cleared. She brushed aside a lock of well-coiffed brown hair from her forehead. “The Array is probably in pieces topside.” She waved off Finch’s attempts to minister to her and sat up on a shapely elbow. “Aren’t you a little tall to be a cop?”
“I’m as tall as my daddy made me, Doctor Burke,” Matson replied, his blue eyes matching her honeyed browns in silent character assessment. “Are you well enough to answer a few questions from myself and Agent Finch?”
Burke stretched out like a cat, accentuating her slender figure and long legs within the confines of the beige jumpsuit that hugged her in all the right places. She nodded her approval and broke off the contest. “So, what do I call my rescuer?”
“Agent Zack Matson,” he said, silently fuming that Burke was avoiding his question. “The person trying to render first aid to you is my partner, Agent Marla Finch.”
Burke smiled and waved off Finch’s attempts to continue. “I’ll answer anything put to me, Mr. Matson.”
Finch turned her attention to Burke’s companion. The officer was dressed in an Alliance blue naval uniform but with all the unit patches removed from the shoulders but he wore blackened Captain’s bars on his collar, something that the Ground Forces favored. The mishmash of uniform items was confusing. His thick-lidded eyes fluttered as he waxed and waned through consciousness, but his pale skin, thin red hair, and general boyish looks were distinctive enough to make her run his image through her facial recognition software. The result came back with Scotland but the software was never completely accurate. She prepared a stimulant dose and injected him. Eventually, he gained a foothold on consciousness to open his blue eyes and nod that he was awake. “Captain, do you remember where you are?”
Monroe looked up at her and nodded, his accent confirming her software. “It’s Lieutenant, actually. Outpost 19, Fuller Foundation Research Facility,” he brought a scarred hand up to his forehead. “Ugh, my head. Are you guys the rescue team?”
Monroe sat up. “If you’re not the rescue team, who the hell are you?”
“Alliance Investigative Service,” Matson interrupted. “We were sent to find out why contact was lost with Colony Control.”
“Just the two of you?” Monroe slumped back onto the cushions. “Oh great, we’re doomed.”
Finch examined his hand. “Lieutenant, how did you get these scars?”
Monroe looked over at Burke, who gave him a nod. “We were running a high energy experiment when one of our generators overloaded. I suppose we mis-calibrated something, but the overload caused a cascade effect that spread throughout the outpost’s power grid,” he pointed outside. “When the emergency protocols failed to engage, I manually disconnected the main power connection and got a burn for my troubles.”
Finch sprayed a bandage over the wound. “You’re lucky that infection didn’t set in. This should keep it sterile for a while.”
“Do you mean to say that the entire outpost staff was killed by a power overload?” Matson wasn’t buying the explanation. “We’ve found evidence that something rampaged through this facility. In fact, we’ve had several run ins with a holographic creature during our investigation. Would you care to explain that?”
Burke held up a hand. “Okay, Mr. Matson, we were working with creating holographic simulations with the capability to act as replacement emergency structures. Imagine how useful it could be to program a holographic projector to create a working generator using solidified light? The benefits of such a process would be incalculable.”
Matson shook his head. “Holograms by their very nature are unstable and prone to fail under a number of circumstances. No, what we’ve encountered so far is using solidified light to kill and destroy. The last time I checked, Doctor, Murder is still illegal in our society.”
Burke took a deep breath, weighing her options. Her shoulders slumped in defeat as she looked up at him. “It’s my fault that this all happened.”
Matson crossed his arms. “Go on.”
“I came here to run an experiment; I won’t deny that. The experiment was supposed to explore the possibility of creating an AI that could adapt to its environment. At first, we were making progress but then something changed. A virus appeared in the software and all hell broke loose,” she turned away. “I must take full responsibility for everything that’s taken place.”
She’s leaving something out, Matson thought. Something very important but she sounds very sincere.
Matson’s thoughts were interrupted by flickering lights and a tremor that toppled the empty pods and broke equipment away from their floor mounts. “We need to get out of here and fast. I saw an door built into the outer shell. Do you know where it leads?”
“Yes,” Burke replied. “When the tremors first began, our seismic scanners indicated that the substrata had broken through to an underground cavern. The outpost engineers surveyed it and found it contained a breathable atmosphere so an airlock was installed. We had barely begun exploring it when our problems began.”
“Let’s go,” Matson said. “This place is about to come down around our ears.”
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