Lights and Shadows Update #14

Note: This is a continuation of Update #13. This particular section has been giving me trouble but I’m soldiering on. Enjoy. 🙂

She gave him a little grunt as she fine-tuned the image by turning a pair of twin knobs on the twin eyepieces. After several back and forth movements, she was rewarded by a sharp focus. “When you are finished criticizing my ergonomic choices, I would appreciate some of your out of the box thinking.”

Matson shrugged and studied the scanner’s attached monitor. “All right, I’ll bite. What do the computer records say?” he caught her look. “Be honest, we can’t be the first to run an analysis on this stuff.”

“Most of the files have been password protected. I can decode them but it will take some time.”

“Time is something we appear to have a lot of at the moment,” he turned his attention to the control console, “Now why would someone encrypt something that just about everyone on the exploration team would need access?”

Finch looked up. “If the recorders found something that someone decided shouldn’t be common knowledge. Something that would either be a huge gain or an enormous loss,” she stole a look outside. “I hope we can get out of here soon,” she went back to her work without another word.

“It’s times like these that I wish I were closer to my family,” he absently mused as he looked outside, “I have a brother in the Marines that I haven’t spoken to since he was assigned carrier duty on the Southern Front. Now that the Locknar War is over, maybe I’ll get the chance to catch up with him.”

“Anything’s possible,” she replied, “I read a while back that Earth was planning on relaxing the media controls soon.”

He nodded, “That would go a long way toward getting things back to normal. If you can call this normal.”

“Reality is subjective,” she slapped the scanner as the scanning beam flickered in and out, “Something about these crystals is definitely disrupting the scanner and I’m at a loss to figuring out why.”

“We have two people with us that may shed some light on the situation,” Matson pressed an intercom button, “Dr. Burke, Lieutenant Monroe, would you come to the Control Room, please?”

Seconds passed with no answer. Matson tried the intercom again. “They’re less than fifty feet away so why don’t they answer?” He cupped his hands like a megaphone and shouted across the room, startling Finch in the process. “Okay, enough is enough. Wakey wakey, you two.”

“If they were heavy sleepers, they aren’t anymore.”

“If they were ever sleeping,” he leaned over the console and flipped a series of switches, clearing the opaque cubicle walls and revealing empty spaces. He pulled out his pistol and checked the supply in the cylinder. He closed the cylinder and held the weapon at his side. “As much as I would love to accept the idea that they vanished into thin air, the skeptic in me thinks they are trying to escape.”

“Where are they going to go? The path back to the outpost is blocked and we don’t know with certainty what is up ahead.”

Lights and Shadows Update #13

Note: Not much of an update, I admit, but it’s progress. Enjoy.

Vague whispers carried through the air tormented him as he tried to sleep. After a few hours, they stopped and Matson opened his eyes. The building was in Night Mode and the quiet darkness punctuated by tiny red lights embedded along the wall base did little to ease his mind as he put his uniform back on. The reinforced fabric fared well despite recent punishment but the wear and tear made its presence known in several Irish pennants that hung from the seams. This wouldn’t have happened if I were wearing my leather, he mused, as he splashed some water from the sink onto his face. He shook off his thoughts and went to the Control Room.

Finch cursed under her breath as she adjusted the emerald samples in the scanner. Small amounts of the stone worked out fine but as she added larger quantities, problems soon developed. What little she could glean from the readings indicated that while the radiation the emeralds emitted wasn’t harmful to humans, higher levels crashed the equipment, frustrating her efforts to learn more. She didn’t look up as Matson entered the room.

“The scanner’s detecting some unusual properties in these emeralds,” she slapped the scanner’s side. “When I can keep it working, that is.”

“Beating on the thing isn’t going to help,” he said, squeezing in beside her and noting to himself that the space between the mini-laboratory and the control console didn’t appear to be as open as when they first arrived, “Did you do something to the equipment?”

“I moved the consoles closer together so I could work on each more efficiently.”

“Efficient, but cramped.”

Lights and Shadows, Update #12

Note: These excerpts are First Draft stuff, which means that errors may be found within. When the story is complete, it may or may not resemble what you’re reading here depending on later edits. In any case, enjoy. 🙂

“Okay, the first order of business is to take stock of what we can use here,” he said, checking inventory labels, “We’re going to be here for a while and this is as good a base of operations as any. Our priorities are food, water, and weapons.” His nose detected the odor again, stronger this time, and he followed the scent until he came upon the corpses scattered near a cave opening to the east of the camp. Decomposition had not quite set in yet. Ten men and women were simply left where they had fallen. “Finch, come and look at this.”

She came over and made a cursory examination. She nodded grimly. “Same as the outpost. Multiple puncture wounds, blunt force trauma and lacerations from bladed objects. Does it remind you of something?”

“Yes, and I was hoping for a different conclusion,” he bent down and retrieved a fallen rifle, “the power pack’s exhausted. They definitely put up a fight,” he set the rifle down next to its corpse, “the poor bastards never had a chance.”

“We should do something for them,” she said, “give them a decent burial or something.”

“The ground’s too compacted for grave digging,” Matson eyed a large anti-gravity skid and set of tarps, “we’ll take them back to camp and placed them for later burial. The ambient conditions here seem to lend toward slow decomposition.”

Finch waved to Burke and Monroe to grab the necessary equipment and they set about moving the deceased to a place near the outskirts of the camp between an intersection of air currents that while not eliminating the smell of death from the air, it at least diminished it enough to where it wasn’t as noticeable. The effort of moving the dead weight took its toll and after a few hours, they all collapsed within the field office’s control room in exhaustion after Finch had hacked the sliding access doors’ biometric locks.

The corner opposite the doors was filled with an L-shaped console filled with displays connected to a computer system with christmas trees of multicolored indicators. A subsystem marked Drone Control caught Matson’s eye.

“Why would they be using drones down here?” He mused.

“I can answer that,” Burke said, “During the initial exploration stage, we found that deploying miniature drones saved us on resources and had the increased benefit of longer range and increased security.”

“I see,” Matson pulled up a status report and studied the result. “Didn’t benefit the crews down here much.” A smile crossed his eyes. “Excuse me.”

Finch stopped him. “Zack, where are you going?”

“There’s an armory module among that menagerie out there and I intend to find it.”

“What do you expect me to do while you’re out there hunting for firearms?”

“Go over all systems with a fine toothed comb and prep this place for long term. Computers can give false readings.”

Finch opened a small access door and crawled inside. “At first glance, the comms look good.”

“What about the transceivers?”

Finch slid her way out. “I guess I spoke too soon,” she said, sheepishly. She ducked back inside and Matson heard the sound of frenzied activity before she reappeared. “We can transmit and receive locally, but the connections to the surface are in pieces. The fiber optics are in good shape, but the network hub has been removed. A professional job, to be sure. I don’t know why but whoever did it made sure that no one could get a word out beyond the immediate area.”

“Curiouser and Curiouser,” Matson noticed Monroe and Burke talking to each other in hushed tones and turned toward them, “Would you two like to join the conversation or would you prefer to wait for an official invitation?”

“Zack, we were discussing things of no particular import to this situation,” Burke replied, her eyes trying to capture his like a hungry spider hunting prey. “Though I suppose that since Pierce and I are suspects, anything we say must be held to higher scrutiny.”

You got that right, Matson thought as he avoided her eyes. The problem with people like Gemina Burke wasn’t that they were attractive. The problem was that she knew the power of her attractiveness and wasn’t afraid to use it. In this case, on him and he was finding it disconcerting to spend too long under her high beams.

“I need some air,” he said, walking away as fast as his limp would allow. At first, he followed the edges of the clearing, admiring the emerald field as he moved along. Many of the pulsing green and blue stones were as thick as his head as they grew from the ground like trees with sharp points that reached for the ceiling. His mind considered the wealth possibilities as he watched them pulse in time with an unheard beat. The effect was hypnotic, so much in fact that before he knew it, an hour had passed and he found himself lost among the stacks of supply crates. As he checked for hidden holographic projectors, a random thought nagged at him. If there were no projectors in the immediate area, how was the creature able to come in and kill the camp inhabitants? He spent a long time pondering this before he heard Finch’s voice over his ear-piece and turned back for camp.

As he walked back, he noticed a squat black container on a wheeled base resting under a light pole. Closer inspection revealed a container with a large supply of laser batteries, explosives, and to his glee, several cases of smart bullets that were a perfect fit for his weapons. He filled up his speed loaders before unlocking the wheel base and pulling the crate back to the field office. After locking it back into position, he went inside the office.

Upon his arrival, he found that Finch had been busy organizing the remaining rooms into living spaces. Portable beds had been set up and repairs made to the internal plumbing to supply water to the showers and septic system. Adding to her resume, she had coaxed extra power from the portable generators and increased the control equipment efficiency, the monitors dutifully recording multicolored images from microscopic drones that flew from waypoint to waypoint that Finch had programmed in to the computers.

“All the comforts of home,” he remarked as he accepted a written report, “While I have no intention of staying here for any length of time, it’s good to know that we have a surviving chance until help arrives. How are we doing on supplies?”

Finch pointed to a dozen crates marked as field ration kits. “I hope you enjoy Alliance Issue Field Rations because we have a lot of them. Whatever they were doing down here, they planned on staying for a while.” She reached over and gave the evaporator a pat. “Another plus is that we won’t run out of fresh water any time soon.”

“No shortage of possible explanations,” he replied. “The emerald field alone would add up a lot of credits to a properly equipped trade hub. I would estimate potential profits in the millions just waiting to be harvested.”

“More like billions,” Burke said. “One of the preliminary geologic teams tested crystal samples and found them to be the purest examples they had ever seen.”

A flicker passed over the monitors, catching Matson’s eye. He went over to the station and studied the readouts. “Did you guys see that?” He pulled up a location screen. “The anomaly is located in the next chamber.”

“We had issues with the mobile sensors from the first time we deployed them down here,” Monroe stated. “Higher Level electronics didn’t seem to work as well down here than up above. We suspected that the mineral formations were generating interference but we could never lock down exactly a cause or a cure.”

“Just to be safe, I’m going to recall all the drones and keep them in this general area,” Matson said, his hands entering commands into the computer. “We’ll get some rest tonight and start out first thing in the morning.” He studied the monitor’s clock set to regulate day and night in the absence of sunlight. “Whenever that is.” He set the clock to wake them at what he hoped was first light before settling in at the sensor station. “Everyone get some rest. I’ll take the first watch.”

Finch waited until Burke and Monroe were out of earshot before she sat down next to him. “Zack, we need to talk about those two.”

He nodded, rubbing the fatigue from his eyes. “They are the subject du jour. Go on.”

“How long are we let these two run around loose?”

“Look around you,” he replied, “we’re four people stuck underground with limited survival resources and, at present, no way to know for sure how we’re going to get back to the surface. We need every hand we can get.”

“They’ve been evasive since we pulled them out of those stasis pods,” she observed, “and while we’re at it, I’m not happy with this dynamic between you and Doctor Burke.”

He frowned, but had no words. He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry about me. I know my job.”

She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I certainly hope so. Good Night.”

He sighed as he watched her leave before turning his attention back to the controls. It was quiet outside the camp with no movement and even less to keep his eyelids from growing heavier as an hour turned to two and more. When the fatigue became too much to bear, he stood and paced back and forth while keeping an eye on the monitors. The portable food processor synthesized a decent coffee strong enough to keep him going and alert.

He settled back into the high backed padded chair and sipped at his coffee while switching through different monitor views. He stopped at a view of the easter cave when he saw a shape framed by the rounded opening. At first, he was prepared to dismiss it as an optical illusion, but when the man-shaped image lingered for several minutes before retreating, he hunched forward and tried to enhance the playback while multiple questions filled his mind. Was it an illusion? Was it real? Why did it not move beyond the cave entrance? He studied the area around the cave entrance and noted that the emerald field bordered onto the cave entrance. Leaving his post, he located a rock hammer and went out to the emerald field. After chipping off several pieces of the tall stones, he returned to the field office and placed the shards under a portable scanner. Matson was no geologist but the inability of the scanner to properly evaluate the samples provided an answer of sorts. He removed the shards from the scanner and placed them in a belt pouch. When Finch came to relieve him, he handed her one of the shards.

“Why, Zack,” she said, “I don’t know what to say. I’m touched but-”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” he replied, “these stones appear to have disruptive properties. I have a theory that the emerald field was instrumental in keeping our friend out there from moving too far into the camp.”

“So, you’re saying that the deaths could have been prevented by simply moving closer in?”

“I am.”

“Okay, let’s say that you’re correct,” she said, “what do we do with this information?”

“Other than making guns that fire emerald shards, I don’t know,” he pointed outside, “In the meantime, I found the camp’s armory crate and moved it next to the building. I suggest that you grab what you can carry and get ready for our next move.” He stood and bade her sit. “Get me if there is trouble.”

“Where are you going?”

“Sleep.”

She stared at the pulsing shard in her hand for several minutes after Matson left before placing it in the scanner and swinging a twin-eyepiece attachment into place, she aligned the eyepieces to offer a better view in addition to the larger monitor display. She modified Matson’s earlier settings and got to work on a new analysis.

Matson’s watch read 2:30 AM local time as he settled into his room. The area past the control room was partitioned by clear walls that instantly opaqued at the twist of a control knob and bordered on a narrow hallway that ran through the center of the space. The room he appropriated had a small bathroom with a shower and sink. He took a moment to wash up before collapsing upon the small bunk that pulled down from the wall and was propped up by legs that extended out from the bottom. He raised a small remote control and adjusted the interior wall’s picture window to display a view of the outside cavern that punctuated the bare wall with the illusion of space. He set the remote aside and slowed his breathing until sleep claimed him.

Lights and Shadows Update #11

Note: This will probably be the last of the L&S updates for a while. I have to leave some mystery before the actual book is released later this year. Enjoy. 🙂

Finch unslung her rifle and checked the ammo supply in silence as they walked, her thoughts in a turmoil. She had accepted Matson’s leadership as a matter of course, but was he needlessly reckless? Granted, she didn’t think that things could get worse down here in Tarson’s planetary bowels, but who was she to judge his methods? Every situation she had experienced with him thus far had turned out in their favor. Okay, a few bumps, bruises, and a few cuts here and there, but nothing overtly life threatening. She wondered if Monroe was just being a coward.

“Stick close and do what you’re told and you have a reasonable chance of getting out of this alive and in one piece,” she told him. “For God’s Sake, grow a pair, will you?”

He grunted in response as the group stopped at the airlock exit.

Matson peered through the door’s rounded window. It was dark on the other side, which eased his guard not one bit. “I wish I knew what was on the other side of this door.”

“When we started exploring, all of our initial scans indicated a hollow geologic space for about one hundred and fifty meters in all directions,” Burke supplied. “There were indications that the eastern portion led to a tunnel, but we never had time to explore it fully.” She looked up at Matson. “I suppose now is as good a time as any.”

Matson didn’t hear her. His ears were perked at a faint beeping from far behind them. Three beeps followed by a longer tone and then repeating. He turned to Finch. “Remember what I said about not being out of the woods yet? I think the forest just decided to dump a load on us.”

Finch turned and watched the cylinder antenna housings flash from green to red. “Sequoia sized loads,” she reached for the door controls and began punching in access codes. “Damn it, open you recalcitrant piece of-”

Despite himself, Matson smiled at her. That’s it, he thought, express that inner rage. We’re going to need every ounce of that anger and fight because as much as I want, I can’t hold this all together by myself.

She looked back at him. “What the hell are you smiling about?”

Matson blanked out his expression. “Nothing, nothing at all. Please continue.”

Finch tried every combination that she could think of including connecting her data tablet and using its code-breaking software. Her efforts met with succeeding red access denied lights and a mounting frustration that caused her to strike the control panel with her fists until he gently restrained her. “Everything I know is useless against this thing, Zack. I don’t know what to do.”

Matson looked from top to bottom as the beeping crescendoed. “There has to be a way to override that panel.”

The closest cylinder to them matched its comrades in red and the beeping pattern reached a fever pitch. The tunnel began to heat until they heard an explosion from the other end. A few minutes later, it was followed by another and then still another. The metal walls began to crack and twist as metal fatigue combined with explosive force began to take their toll. Clouds of dust filled the air as besieging dirt broke through, slowly clogging the way behind them. The chaos inched closer.

Matson ran over to the closest cylinder and checked the antenna assembly. His heart sank as the sealed unit allowed for no external access and even boasted by design that any attempt to countermand the explosive sequence would result in an immediate detonation. “If any of you,” he looked at Burke and Monroe. “Have any suggestions, now is not the time to be shy. We’re about in a situation between choosing between suffocation, vaporizing through explosion, or being crushed by the rest of the planet coming down around our ears. If you can do something, do it.”

Burke and Monroe traded looks before she moved Finch out of the way and punched a long series of numbers into the keypad. The explosions were growing louder as she worked. When she finished, the last cylinder had stopped beeping as the airlock door swung open.

“Don’t wait for a parade,” Matson shouted. “Get through.”

They crowded through the doorway and pushed the door shut as the last cylinder exploded. Matson and Monroe hastily dogged down the secondary latches as the door window filled with dirt and debris. A few cracks appeared in the glass, but it held back the advance.

Matson slumped to the floor and wiped a mixture of dust and sweat from his forehead with a sleeve.

“I think we should take a rest now,” he offered Monroe a hand. “Good job.”

Monroe smiled and accepted the handshake. “Thank you, Sir, it seemed the right thing to do.”

“It was the only thing to do, given the circumstances.”

Burke and Finch watched them bond and for a moment, did a matching set of eye rolls. “I hate to interrupt your male bonding but we should find a better place to make camp for the night. There’s a small supply cache that the Union Corps of Engineers left just ahead.”

Matson struggled to his feet while helping Monroe to his feet. When he had found his footing, he looked ahead of them. “I’m going to assume that we’re heading into unknown territory,” he held up a finger to Finch. “Don’t say it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, though your action affects both you and me.”

He stumbled slightly, using the closest rock to steady himself as an invisible Torquemada went to work on his left leg. He hoped the pain in his left ankle was merely a sprain but he worked to keep his full weight off it as he led the way.

Finch came over and tried to examine his ankle. “Okay, Hero, you can stop for a minute and allow me to check out that impressive limp of yours,” she looked around at the flat gray soil with multicolored rocks embedded among it that glinted in the portable lights that ran the length of their path. Tarson was known for its mineral wealth but to see so many precious and semiprecious stones just there for the taking made her want to carve out a gem for later. She put those thoughts aside as he shook her off. “Zack, you’re obviously in pain. Let me help.”

He shook his head. “When we stop to make camp. I’ve got a bad feeling about this place and I don’t like our tactical options.”

Finch looked around. “We have no tactical options other than the fact that we’re moving down a limited access way.”

“You’re going to bug me about my ankle until I let you do something, aren’t you?”

“I think we both know the answer to that.”

He stopped and sat down. “Fine, but make it quick. I don’t like the idea of something jumping out at me while you’re poking around down there.”

She bent down at his feet and ran a medical scanner over his ankle. “The good news is that it isn’t broken.”

“What’s the bad news?”

“It’s going to hurt like hell and if I give you a painkiller, I’ll have to immobilize your whole leg. The past few days have put a lot of stress on the joint and the more you work it, the closer you’re going to get to a complete break.”

He sat up, keeping his voice down so that the others couldn’t hear them. “Understood, Marla, put a ring bandage on it and I’ll deal with the rest. I trust you.”

Finch removed his foot from the boot while taking a ring-shaped bandage from her first aid kit. Tearing open its protective bag, she unfolded the bandage, slipping it over his foot and into place around his ankle. When she removed a small cotter pin, the bandage inflated to form a flexible cast that held the weakened tendons and bone in place while she helped him slide it back into the boot. “This will hold you for a while, but it’s still going to hurt.”

He gritted his teeth as he zipped up the boot and tested his weight. The pain was still present, but negotiable. “I’ll deal with it. Marla, we need to be careful around these two. I don’t get a good vibe off them.”

“You and me, Partner,” she said, steadying him. “If you need to lean on me, feel free.”

He patted her hand and smiled. “Good to know,” he gently pushed her away and took a step forward. “Come on, let’s get moving.”

Lights and Shadows Mini-Update #9

Note: Chapter 12 begins here and I kind of like this opening:

Closing the inner airlock door behind them triggered a fear response within Matson that he fought back with a ruthless intensity. It wasn’t the danger; he had wrestled with that particular angel plenty of times in the past. No, this was different. An inevitability of change unlike anything he had ever faced before. And he didn’t like it.

Lights and Shadows Update #8

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?”

“Not exactly.”

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.”