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Monday, 24 August 2015

Where it all started... Episode 5

Here's Episode 5 from The Eden Paradox, where the Ulysses crew discover they have a Ghoster on board... What's a ghoster? Well, not good news, that's for sure. The future of terrorism, perhaps (though I hope not).

  

Chapter 4

Ghoster
Pierre’s wristcom twitched twice: twenty-four hours of breathable air left. He closed his eyes for a moment, squeezing the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb, the way grand-pere used to. Eighteen hours after discovering the oxygen depletion, the crew were still no nearer finding where it was going. This looked like the last day of their lives. As a scientist, dying without even knowing the cause was the worst end.
He and Kat re-checked environmental systems, while Blake and Zack worked in the cockpit on ways to put them all into stasis for the remaining five days before their arrival in Eden. But even if that plan succeeded, they would wake up on an airless ship. Both tasks reeked of futility.
Kat’s incessant finger-drumming on the console made it difficult for Pierre to concentrate. They’d checked all components related to atmospheric control for three hours, manually and via main and back-up computers. The onboard diagnostic wizard had drawn a blank, its only output being "insufficient data; good luck". Neither he nor Kat had said a word – not even an expletive – during the last sixty minutes. He stared at a holo of a neural-wiring cluster, unable to focus on account of Kat’s dashboard arpeggios. He strode through the holo-image and thrust his hand over her drumming fingers, flattening them.
She glared, but didn’t start up again. He returned to his writhing spaghetti.
She kicked something he didn’t see. "We’re too stupid to work this out, and we’re going to die."
He shook his head. "We’re missing something. Either it’s defying the known physical laws of gases, or else –"
"Somebody’s screwing us over. Somebody’s pissing themselves laughing ninety light years away. You’re supposed to be the clever one, remember? Figure it out!"
He winced. As the principal scientist onboard, everyone expected him to find the answer. It reminded him of the bad old days at home, solving problems under pressure, battling sabre-toothed enigmas unleashed by his father into the supper-time coliseum of their dining room. But he liked Kat, though he hid it – buried it, to be precise. He’d never told her, and the way things were going, he wouldn’t get the chance.
He was getting nowhere. Normally, whenever he worked on a problem, whether his father’s conundrums or scientific puzzles he’d faced back at the Sorbonne, it was like a yacht’s sails catching the wind, his mind billowing like a spinnaker, the boat surging ahead with a clear direction and land in sight. This time, however, he’d been adrift in a windless ocean.
He gathered himself, and picked up his air-pen. "Let’s try one more time."
Kat adjusted her slouch.
He wrote in liquorice-black in the ether between them, reading out each premise. "One: Oxygen is being depleted." He paused with the pen, filling in the narrative gap orally. "Normally the carbon dioxide we exhale can be re-cycled to recover the oxygen, but –" he flourished the pen again "– two: something is stripping it out; three: no condensation or ice outside; four: no sign of hull depressurisation; five, no airflow disturbance that would signify a leak." He stopped. The first line had already started to melt. He folded his arms, staring at the premises as they lost cohesion, dripping out of reality. "We’ve checked everything organic that uses oxygen, and anything inorganic that could, in theory, bond with it." He tossed the pen back onto the table, then smeared the last of the holo-words out of existence with his hand.
Kat’s face softened. "I like it when you skywrite, Pierre – you should teach me sometime." Her voice snagged on the last word. She put her heels onto the chair’s edge, bringing her knees up to her chest, muttering something he didn’t quite hear. He tried not to stare at her, but her eyes caught his. He coughed.
"One of our assumptions is wrong," he said.
"Obviously – but which one? Nothing you wrote just now – something so basic we don’t see it." She folded her arms. "Killed by our collective blindness; not a great epitaph."
He sat down. "How to see what you don’t see…?" He pictured his father lecturing him, striking the dinner table with the blade of his right hand with each argument he made. Right now, Pierre would welcome the childhood ritual torture as long as his father could solve this particular riddle. If only he were here.
The wind caught the sails of Pierre’s mind. If only he were here
            "Of course!" His hand chopped onto the table, bouncing the pen onto the floor. He shot to his feet. "It’s been here all along, but it changed state!"
"What?"
He fished around in a sheaf of a dozen flimsies, found the one he was looking for.
"What? Talk to me!"
He stared at the figures and charts on the transparent sheet. "Merde," he whispered. He lowered it and looked at Kat, his eyes unwavering.
"You’re starting to scare me, Pierre, which is pretty good going, considering."
He took in every feature of her face. He’d been worrying about them dying – about her dying. But this… He walked towards her, wanting to take her hand. Instead, he touched her arm gently. "Come on."
Kat followed him.
 
 
"You’re absolutely sure?" Blake said, just as Pierre and Kat entered the cockpit. Zack nodded once, heavily.
"Sir," Pierre said, almost standing to attention, "I have a new hypothesis." His pulse raced, sure he was on the right track.
"So have we," Blake said, as he and Zack turned to face Pierre and Kat. "Sabotage: we’ve found evidence of a Minotaur virus planted deep in the comms software."
Pierre dismissed it in a flash. "That’s not it, Sir. The comms software has no primary or even secondary functional connection with life support. The neural clusters use immunity protocols to prevent cross-functional contamination. I’ve checked them three times."
Blake and Zack exchanged a quick glance, and then Blake stood up, facing Pierre. "I don’t think you’re hearing what I’m saying, so let me make it pulse-beam clear for you – we’ve found a level six labyrinthine virus in the software that links us to Earth. We haven’t been able to disable it yet – "
 "Is it active?"
"Excuse me?"
"The virus – has it been activated? Or is it still inert? Because if it’s not activated, it isn’t the cause."
Pierre felt Blake’s eyes burn into him. Logic wasn’t always appreciated in moments of crisis, and Zack would always back up his friend.
Blake spoke softly. "It would take someone very knowledgeable on software to hide such a virus – an expert scientist, perhaps."
He didn’t at first grasp what Blake meant – of course it would – but then he saw the sideways look from Zack, and stepped backwards as if slapped. "Sir – no – never…" His throat dried up. It felt like the time as a boy when his father had wrongly accused him of stealing money from his mother’s purse. He almost turned to Kat, but maintained eye contact with Blake.
Zack intervened. "Maybe we should hear him out, Skip."
Blake’s glare slackened off. "You’re right. Sorry, Pierre – I know it’s not you – it was most probably uploaded on Zeus, in any case. And you’re right about the software, it hasn’t activated – yet – I’m just damned annoyed about it. God alone knows what it’ll do when it is triggered."
Pierre noticed how tired Blake looked.
"So, Pierre, why don’t you tell us your theory."
He collected himself. "My father used to say that when you’ve ruled out everything and still have no solution, it’s because you’ve dismissed something incorrectly, something unthinkable. We’ve been looking for either a leak, or something which could strip out oxygen from the air."
Blake leaned back. "You have our undivided." 
"The most obvious thing to strip out oxygen is one of us. That is, not exactly one of us, but… someone else."
Zack slapped his thighs. "A stowaway! Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that? Now you mention it, I saw someone I didn’t recognise just the other day in the kitchen making coffee –"
Blake held up his hand.
Pierre sped up. "The security screening for this mission has been incredibly intense, especially for any conceivable explosive, and anything which could interfere with our drive systems. Everything checked and scanned before entering the ship, and triple-checked afterwards: organics, chemicals, moving parts, everything."
He paused, to hammer it home. "Nothing, aside from us was alive when we left Zeus. But something else is now."
Blake’s eyes narrowed. Zack hauled himself upwards. "Now wait a goddam minute, Pierre, if you’re going where I think you’re going –"
"What?" Kat asked, "will somebody please tell me what he’s getting at?"
Pierre watched Blake, who stayed perfectly still, tight-lipped. "I’m sorry, Sir. I know you have some personal experience –"
Zack grabbed Pierre’s shoulder. "Where’s your evidence?"
Pierre swallowed, trying to remain calm. He handed the flimsy to Blake. "I correlated the oxygen depletion rate with data from post-War studies. When one of them comes out of hibernation mode, the oxygen usage rate is significant. As you probably know, they process all of it; there’s no carbon dioxide afterwards for stripping.’
"A Ghoster," Kat said. "That’s what you’re talking about, isn’t it?"
Blake glanced at Zack. "The aft compartment, the reserve food stocks, in sealed vacuum-packed crates."
"Skipper –"
"Did you check them, Zack? Did you break them open?"
"I … they’re scanned for bomb material and techware; what was in them was only organic material, cold meat… I mean nobody would have thought…" He bowed his head.
Pierre glanced from Blake to Zack. Having breached land, his sails began to collapse. "You two are amongst the few to have ever survived a ghoster attack. You must know how to take one down."
Blake got up and ripped the seal off the weapons locker at the back of the cockpit, grabbed a pulse pistol and checked its charge. He passed one to each of the others.
Pierre felt his own fear rising. "You killed one, in Kurana Bay, though the records are vague."
Kat cradled her pistol. "How many were you when you met the ghoster?"
"Twenty," Zack answered, priming his pistol. It emitted a low start-up hum. "A full platoon of experienced soldiers."
Pierre swallowed. He was a scientist, he’d never seen any actual combat. He thought the next question, even as Kat asked it.
"How many of you came out?"
"Let’s go," Blake said, heading out, Zack right behind him.
Kat fumbled with her pistol, arming it. She glanced up at Pierre. "We’re so screwed." 
If he’d been someone else, he’d have held her, comforted her in some way. He glanced down at his own pistol – he wasn’t much of a soldier, certainly no match for a ghoster. His brain – that was the only weapon he had that could be of any use right now. He hurried after Blake and Zack. Think, he heard his father say, smacking the dining room table, think fast!

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